Doesn’t kill you: makes you weaker

As things stand a scientific assessment would suggest that Britain is Bangladesh for bees.

Here’s a fun experiment. Give your child – or a neighbour’s child, if you don’t have one of your own – a couple of large glasses of Malbec and then send them off to school. The wine probably won’t kill them, just as the neonicotinoid-based pesticides in routine use on our agricultural land aren’t directly killing bees. The child may well make it across the roads safely and get to school, just as most of the bees are still leaving the hive and finding pollen-bearing flowers. The chances are that the child will perform as badly at school that morning as the pesticideridden bees do at bringing back pollen. But you could still choose to label two glasses of wine a safe dose.

Last month, when the UK government told the EU that neonicotinoids aren’t a proven problem for bees, it brandished scientific evidence. Yet the tests it referred to showed little more than whether the likely doses were lethal. They did not look at whether neonicotinoids hamper a bee’s ability to go about its business effectively – to gather pollen, to navigate between flower sources and hives, or to communicate with other members of the colony.

Better tests show that all these activities are hampered by everyday exposure to neonicotinoids, which may have contributed to the ongoing collapse of bee colonies. For instance, studies carried out by researchers at the University of Stirling found that bumblebees will produce 85 per cent fewer queens. And scientists at Royal Holloway, London, discovered that bumblebees exposed to real-world neonicotinoid levels are 55 per cent more likely to get lost while foraging. That makes sense in the light of studies carried out by researchers at the universities of Newcastle and Dundee, which showed a disruptive effect on the honeybee brain, “observed at concentrations . . . encountered by foraging honeybees and within the hive”.

None of this is surprising. These pesticides are toxins that cause disorder in the brain. Just because they don’t cause immediate observable harm to a single bee when the chemicals are assessed individually doesn’t mean they are not a problem when all the various neurotoxins in the bee’s environment accumulate. As the Dundee and Newcastle researchers reported, “exposure to multiple pesticides . . . will cause enhanced toxicity”. There are probably safe doses of gin, vodka and whisky for a toddler. Give those measures all at once, however, and harm will ensue.

Anyone can avoid accepting inconvenient evidence in science, where findings are rarely black and white. A paper published last autumn in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, for instance, demonstrates how epidemiologists and toxicologists work out the effects of interacting exposures to chemicals in different ways, which can lead to completely different conclusions about whether there is any effect at all.

But arguing over definitions is no good to bees. The collapse of the jerry-built garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month offers a salutary lesson applicable to bee-colony collapse: you can rationalise the greedy pursuit of short-term gain all you like, but if catastrophe strikes, you are still responsible for the loss.

Economists put the annual value of insect pollinators to the UK economy at roughly £440m. Moral considerations aside, ensuring that their working conditions are as safe and sustainable as possible seems to make economic good sense. As things stand, however – and soon they might fall – a scientific assessment would suggest that Britain is Bangladesh for bees.

Bees. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”