Insect Intelligence: Exploring their Cognitive Abilities

Intelligent insects: exploring their surprising cognitive skills

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If I asked you to think of an intelligent creature, you’d probably say a chimp or a dolphin, right? But did you know that many insects are also incredibly smart? In fact, some of their cognitive skills might surprise you.

Ways in Which Insects Exhibit Cognitive Abilities

Ways in which insects exhibit cognitive abilities

When I talk about insect intelligence, I’m not referring to intelligence in the way that you or I might display this trait. But that’s because insects have very different brains to humans, and the way they process information is not the same either.

Consider that a human brain can weigh between 2.9 and 3.1 lbs (1.3 and 1.4 kg), whereas a honey bee’s brain only weighs less than a small grain of sand. Knowing this, we would conclude that insects do not have the same level of cognition as we do. While that’s true to a degree, they have their own way of displaying smarts that’s pretty amazing when you consider their size. 

Insect brains exhibit remarkable capabilities, enabling them to count, devise unique communication methods, and even identify faces.

Learning & Memory

In order to survive, it’s incredibly important that an organism has some sort of ability to learn and memorize information. Amazingly, insects are capable of both short and long-term memory and this helps them in many ways.

I’ve always been fascinated by honey bees, and one of the things that amazes me is their ability to learn where the best food sources are. Not only will they commit this to memory, but they’ll also use a special form of communication called a waggle dance to tell other members of their colony where to forage. And it’s not just honey bees, while bumble bees might not have as great a memory, they’re still able to recall food sources for several hours which helps them when foraging.

Several studies have taken place on insects to determine their memory abilities, and one thing that many of them display is that they can learn to differentiate between reward and punishment. Various stimuli are presented to insects, such as odors, and over time, they’ll start to learn which odors offer a reward and which offer punishment. This is something that has been seen in wasps leading scientists to believe they could be trained in the same way as a sniffer dog!

And if they’re not learning, they’ll give trial and error a go. For example, the fruit fly will learn to avoid certain scents when they’re linked to a bad experience. The benefit of this is that they’re better able to avoid potentially dangerous situations in the wild.

There is even evidence of caterpillars being exposed to certain odors and recalling this information even after they’ve undergone metamorphosis. Researchers performed studies on the tobacco hornworm caterpillar where mild electric shocks were delivered in association with a particular odor. Even once they reached adulthood, it was noted that they still associated these shocks with negative results.

Spatial memory is also something we see in insects like ants, which are able to recall their nest location. They largely do this using visual cues, and this helps them to navigate their world.

Problem-Solving Skills

It would be hard to get through life without an ability to solve problems, and while insects have small brains, they’re still able to find solutions to complex tasks. For example, many insects have been seen to use tools. Ants are a prime example of this, and they’ve developed the ability to find absorbent materials to help transfer liquid food back to the nest. 

Moreover, the assassin bugs found in arid parts of Australia are known to cover themselves in sticky plant resin to improve their prey capture abilities. Amazingly, this type of resin was used by primitive humans to make tools. 

When it comes to finding their way around, many insects have some awesome problem solving skills to get to a specific location. Some species of desert ant will use the sun’s position along with landmarks to find their way home and can even use their spatial reasoning to determine the best route to their destination.

There’s even been evidence to suggest that wasps may be able to use logical reasoning, and this is the first time this type of behavior has been noted in an insect.

During tests, bumble bees were presented with two sugar containers and expected to find a way to open them. Older specimens seemed to be able to complete this problem solving task, but what was truly amazing was that younger bees appeared to watch and learn, proving that this species may pass on information to younger generations. 

Communication & Language

Communication is essential in any species as it ensures their very survival by telling others where food is or if there’s an incoming threat. And insects communicate in some very unique ways.

Earlier, I mentioned the waggle dance performed by honey bees, and this isn’t just a way to let others know that there is food nearby. Honey bees performed certain moves to indicate the direction and quality of the food source. Moreover, these ‘moves’ are passed down to younger bees as they watch their elders perform them!

Honey bees, and many other insects, such as ants, also use pheromone communication. Quite often, this is used to signal danger, and these chemical cues alert the rest of the colony who can then take action to protect their nest. Queen bees also produce pheromones that influence the behavior of the colony and tell them when she’s ready to mate or even die!

Ants will also use pheromones to mark trails to viable food sources which makes it easier for other members of the colony to follow the trail and bring more food back.

While insects are incapable of speech, that doesn’t mean they don’t use audible cues to communicate. If you’ve ever heard crickets chirping, that’s not just a random noise; it’s actually a song designed to attract a mate.

Tactile communication is also common in the insect kingdom, meaning that they use touch to communicate. Honey bees will create vibrations within the hive and are often done to alert individuals that a waggle dance is taking place on the outside.

Ants are another species that use this type of communication and will touch their antennae to those of another ant in order to determine whether they’re from the same colony.

Social Behavior

Many species of insects live in highly social groups called colonies. Examples include bees, termites, and ants, and the numbers in these colonies can be in the tens of thousands. In order for these colonies to thrive, there needs to be a tight social structure, which often means having a hierarchy or caste system. This might include reproductive castes and worker castes and in many ant species, they’ll develop different body shapes according to their caste!

On top of that, the colony is divided into different job roles, with each insect playing an important part. In the honey bee hive, worker bees head out to forage, and nurse bees tend to the eggs and larvae. There are also drones, which are males, and their sole purpose it is to mate with the queen. In ant colonies, there are even soldiers whose job is to protect the nest.

And some ant species even display altruistic behaviors, creating a distraction for a predator and self-sacrificing for the good of the colony. Honey bees also display this type of behavior and will sting, resulting in death, if it means the colony will survive.

Without the intense cooperation we see in insect colonies and their ability to work together, their social structures would not survive. What’s more, in a study on wasps, it was noted that social species relied more heavily on group power than on their own brains, with certain parts of the brain associated with social skills even shrinking.

Do Insects Have Brains?

Do insects have brains?

Insects do have brains, but they’re not made up in the same way as human brains. This is largely to do with the number of neurons. Humans have around 86 billion, whereas a fruit fly only has 200,000.

However, like human brains, the insect brain can be broken down into three basic parts; the protocerebrum, the deutocerebrum, and the tritocerebrum. However, many insects also have other small brain parts that further assist their senses and ability to learn and memorize. Let’s take a look at what each part is responsible for.

  • The protocerebrum is the biggest part of the insect’s brain and indeed, the most complex. It’s here that information is processed in relation to senses like sight and smell as well as the insect’s motor functions. It’s here that  memory and learning also take place.
  • The deutocerebrum processes information in relation to senses such as touch and smell.
  • The smallest part of the insect brain is the tritocerebrum, and it’s here that information is processed in relation to the nervous system and coordination.

As I mentioned, we do see some other cerebral structures in insects, and one such example are the mushroom bodies. Mushroom bodies are vital for the insects’ sensory processing and are small structures that receive information from the sensory organs.

Not only this, but the mushroom bodies are also able to form associations between various sensory inputs, which helps the insect in its learning and ability to memorize information related to these. In fact, it’s thought that the mushroom bodies are where most memory information is stored in the insect brain.

When we look at the size of the mushroom bodies in any given insect, we can see that those with larger structures are more advanced in their cognitive abilities.

Another brain structure we see in insects is the optic lobe. This is a small part of the brain that processes information from the optic surfaces and sends it to the brain.

Insects that Display Astounding Mental Capabilities

When it comes to intelligent insects, the animal kingdom is filled with them. From the amazing communication skills of honey bees to the navigation skills of some butterflies; these insects are truly fascinating.

1. Honey Bees

Honey bees are colony insects, and one of their most impressive cognitive traits is their ability to communicate.

Honey bees are colony insects, and one of their most impressive cognitive traits is their ability to communicate. As I mentioned earlier, this species will perform the waggle dance in order to tell other members of the hive where food is and its quality.

What’s more, when it comes to foraging, certain bees seem to have an affinity for one type of flower, especially where colors are concerned. That’s because they’re able to remember specific colors and patterns and associate this with a reward. The same goes for scents.

Honey bees also use their excellent communication when numbers get too large for the nest. In this case, they will swarm and it’s the queen that leads the way. When she finds a suitable spot for the swarm, she’ll release pheromones, and up to 10,000 worker bees will join her in preparation for finding a new home.

Within a colony, honey bees have a very strict social structure, with each member having his or her own job. This cooperation means that the bees can work together to care for their hive, raise their young, and gather food. This is where their communication skills come to be invaluable because they’ll use tactile methods, pheromones, and visual cues to pass information between individuals.

What’s more, when they leave the hive to forage, honey bees are able to use ultraviolet light to find flowers and will even use the sun as a way to navigate their way home. While it was previously thought that bees lacked consciousness, new research has shown that they’re likely aware of their own existence and are sentient beings.

If that wasn’t enough, consider that honey bees have even displayed problem solving abilities and can count! In studies, it was shown that, by using a decoy bees, individuals were able to learn a process in order to gain a reward.

And when it comes to counting, not only can bees recognize zero, but they’re also able to solve simple math problems with an accuracy of more than 70%. Further studies have shown that bees are also able to order items in terms of size, demonstrating that, while they may not be able to actually count in the way that we do, they have some cognition in relation to numerical value.

2. Dragonflies

Dragonflies are known for their complex hunting strategies and this isn’t something that just happens by chance.

Dragonflies are known for their complex hunting strategies and this isn’t something that just happens by chance. These large insects are able to plan their hunts by predicting how their prey will move based on their trajectory and then adjusting their flight pattern to match these movements and make a successful kill. This allows them to catch their prey in flight, and they have a 97% accuracy when doing this. 

Not only this, but dragonflies also adapt their hunting techniques based on things they have learned. For example, they’re able to recall the best hunting grounds and will also learn from their previous successes and mistakes during past hunts.

In order to be such successful hunters, dragonflies also have exceptional vision. Not only this, but their eyesight allows them to navigate through even the most complex environments. When hunting, their vision and cognition are so spot on that they can determine a single moving target from within a swarm! This is because of their ability to zone out all surrounding distractions and focus their attention on one target. An ability that was previously only recorded in primates.

When it comes to communication, dragonflies are very intelligent. They use various visual and auditory cues, including clicks, buzzes, and flashing their wings. Not only are these signals designed to communicate information between dragonflies, but scientists also believe their visual cues serve as a warning to predators.

3. Ants

Ants are among some of the intelligent insects and, like bees, live in colonies where teamwork is essential.

Ants are among some of the intelligent insects and, like bees, live in colonies where teamwork is essential. This means that ants have to be effective communicators; and they are! Not only do colonies divide the workload and have a complex caste system, but they also use pheromones as a primary method of communication.

This is hugely beneficial as it goes a long way in helping the coordination of the colony by sharing information about food sources and alerting others to potential threats. Both of these things can also be quickly committed to memory for an impressively long time. And because ants from the same colony have a similar scent, they’ll use their antennae to check each other out to make sure that they’re ‘family.’

Both together and alone, ants are extremely good problem solvers. For example, when heading back to the nest, individuals are able to find the most efficient route and where they’ve found a good food source, they’ll leave a pheromone trail so others can find it too! When finding their way home, ants in the desert don’t have landmarks to help them, instead they use the sun’s position to allow them to travel more than 0.6 miles (1 km)!

One of the most impressive ways that ants work together and show their intelligence is through farming; yes you read that correctly. In England, ants have been observed farming honeydew from aphids and even building barns from moss and beetle exoskeletons in which to keep their livestock safe! And down in South America, for more than 60 million years, ants have been farming fungi which is thought to be a mutualistic relationship.

4. Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies use the position of the sun, it’s also been observed that they use the earth’s magnetic field.

If there’s one thing that monarch butterflies are well known for, it’s their migratory habits. But what’s truly fascinating is the way in which they navigate during these migrations. Not only do monarch butterflies use the position of the sun, it’s also been observed that they use the earth’s magnetic field. This is detected by using UV light, picked up by the butterfly’s antennae.

The result of this is that monarch butterflies are able to navigate over extraordinarily long distances of up to 3,000 miles (4,828 km) in a single migration. What amazes me more is that the butterfly’s mechanisms allow it to adjust its flight according to the time of day so it remains on the right path.

When migration occurs, it’s not uncommon to see very large numbers of monarchs gathered together. While they’re not typically social creatures, they know that congregating this way enables them to stay warm in winter.

If that wasn’t enough, consider that monarch butterflies also have fantastic memories and learning abilities. These beautiful insects are able to recall the location of food sources and safe places to nest, all based on their past experiences.

5. Termites

Termites are another example of highly social insects that divide work within the nest and display intense cooperation.

Termites are another example of highly social insects that divide work within the nest and display intense cooperation in order that everything runs smoothly. The social structures within the termite nest are incredibly complex, and much like ants, there is a caste system.

But one of the most fascinating things about these insects is how elaborate their nest structures are. They include various levels and chambers and a single nest can measure up to 17 feet (5.2 meters) in height. But they’d never be able to achieve this without effective communication, so it’s a good job that termites are able to use pheromone signals to pass information between colony members. This can include messages to do with coordinating behavior, incoming threats, and where the best food sources are located. 

Building these nests is no mean feat, but termites are able to use their advanced problem solving skills to create a nest that’s not only stable but also protects the colon against predation. They’ll build mud tunnels which have a protective function but also use pheromone cues to let others know when a predator is near. Some species will even bang their heads on the ground to warn neighboring nests of a potential threat.

And that’s not even where their neighborly nature ends. Since some of the soldier termites grow extremely large jaws, they’re unable to feed themselves. But these intelligent insects have got this problem covered and will digest a substance called cellulose, found in wood, and feed it to their comrades.

Most termites never leave the nests; it’s only ever the kings and queens, and what really amazes me is that, even in their larval stage, potential kings and queens have much larger and more advanced optic lobes so that they’re able to cope with the bright lights outside the nest.

6. Dung Beetles

The navigational skills of the dung beetle could even rival your sat nav since they use both the sun and the stars to find their way around.

Most people think that dung beetles are pretty gross, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. After all, they use dung to build nests, attract a mate, and they even eat it! But just because they have this weird lifestyle, it doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent.

In fact, the navigational skills of the dung beetle could even rival your sat nav since they use both the sun and the stars to find their way around. Their ability to navigate using the stars is the first recorded example in the insect kingdom, and they’re even able to do it when the sky is cloudy or there’s no moon. 

But they don’t have particularly good vision and instead rely on the light cues from the stars to keep their dung balls moving in the right direction. Even more impressive is that they’re able to memorize the orientation of the stars to use for future navigation.

And it doesn’t end there; dung beetles are known to be able to solve complex problems, including finding the best path to the most viable food sources. It’s reported that they’re actually aware that a straight line usually provides the best route. What’s more, they’ll retain this important information to help them find good food sources in the future.

Dung beetles are also very effective communicators. They use various methods, including pheromones and visual cues, which enable them to find a mate and defend their territory. This is particularly important as competition between males can become quite fierce.

7. Wasps

Wasps have the ability to distinguish faces, allowing them to determine whether an individual is a threat or not.

Wasps are often seen as pests, but when you look a little closer, you’ll see that they’re fascinating creatures with excellent cognition. One of the most amazing things about wasps is their ability to distinguish faces among their peers, allowing them to determine whether an individual is a threat or not. But this isn’t something they’ve always been able to do, and scientists think that it’s a trait that’s only developed in the last few thousand years in paper wasps.

Just like their cousins, bees, wasps are incredibly good navigators and are able to find their way home using various methods such as the sun and landmarks. They’ll also use their sense of smell to locate their nest. Once they reach home, this social species uses a variety of communication methods, including pheromones and visual signals, which allow them to tell others about good food sources. They’ll also use their communication skills to attract a mate and as a method of defending their home.

I find it really impressive that, beyond humans and birds, wasps are some of the only animals that have been observed to display logical reasoning. In studies, wasps were placed in an enclosure that had an electrified floor (only gentle shocks were delivered.) There were two colors, one of which was a safe zone, and the wasps displayed the ability to determine which areas were safe.

8. Fruit Flies

Researchers believe that these tiny flying insects are even able to think before they act.

Fruit flies have very tiny brains that contain around 200,000 neurons. That’s far less than a human, but it doesn’t stop them from being incredibly smart. In fact, researchers believe that these tiny flying insects are even able to think before they act.

On top of this, fruit flies are very effective communicators, and they possess an ability that’s not seen in any other insect; they’re able to ‘talk’ to other species of fruit fly. It’s pretty amazing that these flies can learn the ‘language’ of other fruit fly species in order to warn them about threats. While they use vibrational patterns instead of vocal language, it’s been demonstrated that there’s even a specific part of the brain that’s responsible for helping them learn these new dialects.  

Studies have also shown that fruit flies may have similar memory and learning capabilities to mammals. In tests, they were trained to determine a negative heat stimulus image and were successfully able to learn which images to avoid and which ones were safe.

9. Cockroaches

During studies, researchers trained cockroaches to salivate when exposed to certain stimuli.

Like wasps, cockroaches are often seen as pests and they’re known for their remarkable ability to withstand trauma and still survive. However, it’s not just their physical abilities that make them an impressive species, cockroaches are also pretty smart.

During studies, researchers trained cockroaches to salivate when exposed to certain stimuli. What’s interesting about this is that, in order to develop a reflexive reaction like this, an organism must have a certain degree of cognition. Because of the results of this study, scientists have declared cockroaches to have the same level of intelligence as a dog! They’re even thought to have individual personalities.

There’s even evidence to suggest that the antimicrobial compounds in cockroach brains could be used to treat bacterial infections like E-coli!

But while they’re intelligent, it appears that cockroaches perform better at learning and memory at certain times of the day. During tests where cockroaches were trained to associate the smell of peppermint with a sweet treat, those trained in the evening performed better than those trained earlier in the day. What’s more, further studies revealed that individual cockroaches have their own learning styles, just like humans.

10. Jumping Spiders

Jumping spiders have auditory cells that connect to their brains, allowing them to pick up on sounds.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hugely arachnophobic. But just because I don’t want to share my personal space with spiders, that doesn’t mean I don’t find them massively interesting. The intelligence of the jumping spider, a member of the Salticidae family, is one reason I’m so fascinated with them.

Have you seen the many videos on TikTok of people that keep jumping spiders as pets? If you have, you’ll have noticed how these insects have their own personalities and seemingly form bonds with their owners.

In terms of communication, jumping spiders are unable to hear because they don’t have ears. But they are able to pick up on subtle vibrations. They even have auditory cells that connect to their brains, allowing them to pick up on sounds happening more than 10 feet (3 meters) away. They also have visual cells that allow them a 360 degree view of the world despite having a brain the size of a poppy seed. Plus, it’s thought that the vision of a jumping spider is only 5 to 10 times worse than that of a human, and they’re able to distinguish between moving and non-moving objects

Couple this impressive eyesight with the fact that jumping spiders are able to come up with strategic hunting techniques and will learn from trial and error, and it’s easy to see why they’re one of the most intelligent insects on the planet.

From Bugs to Bytes: Leveraging Insect Intelligence in Technology

Leveraging insect intelligence in technology

When you think about technology, your mind may not immediately go to insects, but researchers have been looking at how insect intelligence could inspire human technology. They’ve been looking into the different ways that these tiny critters process information and solve problems. As a result of this, there’s the potential for humans to develop effective and efficient algorithms for certain types of technology like robotics and artificial intelligence.

For example, by looking at the brains of insects and the way that they navigate through complex environments, researchers may be able to apply this same tech to robotics. There are currently some robots that are able to mimic insect behaviors, like flying, which allows them to navigate tight spaces.

There has also been research into the way that the fruit fly brain works and how it converts sensory information into an ability to locate food, which could inspire the development of future AI models. 

Another interesting study is taking place after one scientist received a grant to look at how insect memory works which she intends to apply to robotics. In these studies, she is looking at how nanorobotics could benefit from the limited mass but still be able to learn and perform efficiently.

Moreover, this insect ability for precise navigation could also be applied to the technological workings of autonomous vehicles. If this technology is to advance to the point of being commonly used, the sensory and cognitive methods used by insects could be the way forward. This would work by comparing the power of cognition to the mass of the insect’s brain and applying this to very small yet efficient autonomous robots.

There’s also hope for the future that humans will be able to create swarm robots that are designed to work together to solve problems such as making repairs, and this technology is being inspired by the way that insects, like bees, swarm in nature.

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