Don’t be fooled by a beetle’s tough outer shell; insects have feelings. The range of emotions they feel, however, it quite limited. For instance, will a millepede have an existential crisis? Probably not. Will it feel fear or urgency when it sees a person approach, shoe in hand? Yes.
Insects, especially those that live in colonies, rely on communication and emotions to work together properly. Here, bug lovers can learn about the inner workings of an insect’s mind, including how it feels.
Insects Feel Emotions at a Very Basic Level
It’s hard to put the emotions that insects feel into words. Yet, there’s no harm in trying. Depending on the situation, an insect may feel:
- Content. Ever seen a group of bees buzzing around a garden? While insects don’t generally feel “happy,” they do feel content at having their needs met.
- Aggression. Aggression in the insect world isn’t rooted in feelings of spite or anger. It’s generally used to protect the colony, as in the case of Africanized bees.
- Depression. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) notes that some insects display signs of depression when things don’t go their way. This may manifest as being unresponsive, not flying around, or general lethargy.
Scientists are still trying to explore the full range of insects’ emotions. Research shows that they may share many traits that closely-related crabs and lobsters do.
The Science Behind Insect Behaviors (and Feelings)
Like all living things, insects need survival skills, which at the basic level is a fight-or-flight response. Without this trait, there’s little to no hope of survival. Here’s an example of how honeybees utilize fear and apprehension to ward off predators.
Per Communicative & Integrative Biology, when honeybee colonies feel threatened (usually by predatory wasps), they coat the nest’s surface. Then, by rhythmically flexing their wings, they create a “wave.” From a scientific standpoint, this indicates:
- Bees recognize danger. To sense danger, the bees must feel threatened, and if they feel threatened, they implement this defense strategy.
- Communication is key. Honeybees have very advanced methods of communication. Demonstrating feelings of urgency or fear allows the bees to work together to ward off predators.
Honeybees are perhaps the most in tune with their “feelings.” To exist in a hierarchical colony, there must be some level of cognitive processing, belonging, and allegiance. There’s also the basic will to survive––a must for any living creature.
Insect Brains Vs. Human Brains
To understand how bugs feel emotions, one should understand how their brains work. To put things in context, imagine a bug brain and a human brain side-by-side (or not, that’s okay). Size is obviously a massive factor. Bigger brains generally mean bigger processing capabilities. Humans have more emotions than bugs simply because there’s more space.
Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that many of the differences are beneath the surface, however. Every brain relies on neurons, which send electrical and chemical messages throughout the nervous system. The average bug has 200,000 neurons. That’s the basic number of neurons needed for basic cognitive processing.
On the other hand, people have 86 billion. This allows for a wider breadth of processing, relationship-building, and, of course, emotions.
How Do Insects Experience Emotions?
Humans rely on many senses to feel emotions. Take a person that sees their crush holding hands with someone else. First, they see this happening. The eyes send messages to the brain that trigger responses throughout the body, such as an increase in heart rate, sweat, and other physical symptoms. Then, the person may feel disappointed, upset, or angry, depending on how their brain processes information.
Bugs work similarly when responding to certain events. Take a fruit fly that’s buzzing around the kitchen. It may sense disturbances in air pressure using sensory organs, indicating a predator. Then, it may rapidly buzz around to avoid getting swatted because the fly does not have the cognitive threshold to think.
But What About When Insects Attack?
Someone may think that an insect is “angry” when it stings someone. However, that’s not the case. As with any defense mechanism, the sting is meant to protect the insect––and its colony, depending on its species. It does not have the same implications as, say, getting pushed on the playground.
Stinging someone isn’t the only way an insect may display aggression. Some other signs that point to this emotion include:
- Squirting liquid
- Making themselves bigger
- Emitting unpleasant sounds
- Chasing after threats
- Opening and closing its mandibles
Insects Aren’t the Only Animals That Have Emotions
There is no evidence to suggest that living things don’t feel something like emotions. In addition to insects, these organisms also experience consciousness:
- Elephants. Elephants are one of the most intelligent land mammals. They even grieve the loss of a loved one, burying their dead and paying tribute to their remains.
- Cuttlefish. Who would’ve guessed that a cephalopod would be so emotional? These creatures wear their hearts on their sleeves––literally. They rapidly change color when they feel sick or angry.
- Bonobos. Bonobos may rival humans when it comes to their emotional depth. These apes establish long-lasting friendships based on trust, similarities, and proximity. They also live in large colonies based on relationships.
- Crows. Crows recognize faces, remember tricks, and even trade for shiny objects.
It might be harder to crush a cockroach knowing that it has feelings. Still, there’s a lot to learn about how insects process information and relate to one another. For more fun facts about insects, check out this article from the Smithsonian Institute.