Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS )has suggested that Bumblebees do, in fact, feel pain. Some scientists want to grant more invertebrates ethical consideration, questioning assumptions on consciousness.
The ability of bumblebees to modify their responses to noxious (painful) stimuli is consistent with other animals’ ability to feel pain. According to Queen Mary University of London researchers, bumblebees have been shown to modify their response to painful stimuli to obtain a higher sugar reward. It is therefore important to take the possibility of pain seriously and suffering from insects.
Research led by Lars Chittka at the Queen Mary University of London has shown that insects are more flexible than previously thought. They can suppress withdrawal responses when it suits them, such as when a sweet treat comes along.
The flexibility of this kind is consistent with the possibility of subjective pain perception. “Scientists used to think of insects as callous robots that avoided injury through simple reflexes,” said first author Matilda Gibbons.
In the study, scientists found that bumblebees respond to damage non-reflexively, suggesting that they feel pain.
According to our study, the UK’s animal welfare laws do not protect insects; perhaps they should. If insects are capable of feeling pain, humans have an ethical obligation to avoid causing them unnecessary suffering.
A motivational compensation paradigm was used by the researchers in the PNAS paper, in which animals had to compensate for competing motivations. Bees were given a choice between feeders that were unheated or highly heated (55°C) with different concentrations of sucrose.
Bees avoided heated feeders when both were of high quality, but they used them more when they contained a higher concentration of sucrose.
Furthermore, the team extended the motivational compensation paradigm to include cues (colors) that the bees learned to associate with higher sugar rewards. Since the bees used learned color cues to make their decisions, the compensation was based on brain processing instead of just peripheral input.
Therefore, it was determined that bees were willing to suffer some pain to obtain a higher sugar reward. Furthermore, this ability has been reported in other animals to be consistent with the ability to feel pain.
According to the researchers, this is not a formal test because the pain experience is subjective, but it is essential to take into account the possibility of insect pain.
Professor Chittka states that insects (unlike vertebrates) are not currently protected by any legislation that governs the treatment of insects in laboratories or in the growing industry that produces insects for human or livestock consumption. Therefore, the researcher explains that expanding the legal framework for animal welfare may be necessary.
“We have an obligation to conserve the environments which have shaped insects’ unique and seemingly alien minds because we are beginning to find evidence of some form of sentience in insects,” Professor Chittka said.
“The human species is only one of many species capable of experiencing enjoyment and suffering, including pain. Even insects deserve respect, ethical treatment, and the right to minimize suffering,” he said.
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