This comment was posted by DKNY on the rather excellent Not Exactly Rocket Science article on bee warning behaviour

perhaps this is a very stupid question but I am just a high school student so hopefully someone might answer this without the condescension I have come to expect when asking questions on blogs.

Anyway I just find it amazing the amount of rather complex behavior that bugs like bees and ants are capable of considering they only have a couple thousand brain cells and I am curios how they know to do any of it. do bees know exactly what it is their doing, is there any kind of actual thought involved? like do they make a decision to issue that warning buzz or is it completely instinctual and automatic like me knowing to pull my hand away when I touch something burning hot without thinking about it? if it is entirely instinctual how come they warn some bees that are advertising a dangerous location and not others? And because they do that it must mean there is some degree of decision making involved, right?

Does anyone have a good response?

OK, well I don't know very much about bee brains specifically, but I know a lot about brains in general and a bit about insect brains, so I will have a go at answering this.

This is a great question, and it brings up all sorts of philosophical issues about the nature of free will, and all sorts of other things that I won't go into here. The simple answer to this is that bees and other insects don't 'think' in the sense of making conscious decisions. Everything they do is pretty much a result of the way their brains are wired up. That's not to say it is innate - 'innate' suggests it is there at birth, yet even simple animals can 'learn' because their brains change over time according to the inputs they get from the environment. But what it IS, certainly, is automatic.

The important thing to remember is the difference between doing something CONSCIOUSLY and doing it UNCONSCIOUSLY. As you correctly say, humans pull their hand away from a hot stove without thinking about it - it is unconscious. And yet if you didn't know about reflexes, you might well suppose that the person was doing this on purpose by thinking 'Ow, that's hot! I'd better move my hand!'. In fact, many (even very complicated) responses can be fully automatic. You'd be surprised at some of the things you do yourself that you thought were voluntary, but that are actually generated by automatic brain activity - walking is a good example: once you get going, your spinal cord takes over, which is why you don't have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. I bet you didn't know that! The difference between us and bees is that we can consciously override these automatic actions, for instance by deciding to skip instead of walk if we are in a good mood! Bees just don't have enough brain cells (we call them 'neurons') to have this degree of control, so they tend to do what they are 'programmed' to do.

You rightly say that bees do not always behave predictably and may appear to be making crude decisions, but in fact this is just a consequence of how complex their brains are. It may be hard for you or I to imagine why a bee may warn one fellow bee and not another of a danger, but you can be sure that there is a reason, and that reason lies ultimately in the way their brains are wired up. Perhaps they just don't recognise bees that are not part of their own hive? Or perhaps it depends on the context - it might be dangerous for the bee to buzz a warning if a predator is nearby, for example, so the part of the brain that senses the danger 'tells' the part that produces the warning buzz to keep quiet on this occasion? Whatever the reason, there is absolutely no reason to conclude that a bee is 'thinking' just because its behaviour isn't exactly the same each time. Complex brains produce complex responses - it stands to reason! And even tiny little bee brains are enormously complex and, as a result, often unpredictable. The bottom line is: things are not always what they seem when it comes to animal behaviour.

In fact, some people believe that free will is an illusion and that humans only THINK they have control over their own decisions. But that's another story...

Thanks Michelle, that's really useful - I have passed on the information and linked it back here so any further comments can be found.