School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

Do bees feel pain?

Project description

The assessment of pain in animals is a moral obligation in deciding on strategies for animal welfare, for domestic animals and those that are hunted in the wild, as well as animals used for experimentation in the laboratory. However, current legislation places no limits on the treatment of invertebrates, based on the assumption that they do not experience pain – without any evidence in favour of this notion. This means, for example, that lobsters can be cooked alive in restaurants, or that tethered insects can be subject to invasive neurobiological treatments in the laboratory without anaesthesia or analgesia or indeed without the need to apply for a permit to ensure that the research is conducted with due consideration of numbers of animals that are used, severity of treatment or the possible benefits to science or humanity. It is thus imperative that a study is conducted that provides conclusive evidence whether insects are indeed incapable of the kind of suffering that would necessitate amendment of the laws governing animal welfare to include insects and other invertebrates. 

Despite urban legends such as that “one can hold a lighter to a bee’s abdomen without her noticing, while she is busy sucking nectar on a flower” it is already clear that insects have basic nociception – i.e. the sensation of, and direct responses to, harmful or potentially harmful stimuli. Anyone witnessing a grasshopper being impaled on a fishing hook will testify that it resists the treatment with all the vigour that one might expect of a mammal subjected to a similar treatment. It is therefore convenient but delusionary to claim that invertebrates are incapable of nociception. The effects of pain outlast nociception and are more difficult to diagnose, since pain is in its very nature subjective, but a variety of criteria are now largely agreed upon in the vertebrate literature about how one might diagnose pain in ways that are informative for animal welfare and the application of analgesia for invasive treatments (see e.g. Sneddon et al 2014 Anim Behav 97: 2001-2012). The first goal here is to apply the set of standard treatments and criteria to assess the possibility of pain sensations in man’s smallest domestic animal, the honeybee, as a model invertebrate. The second goal is, if necessary, to influence legislation for the appropriate treatment of insects in manners that minimise adverse effects to their wellbeing. 

We will experiment only with moderately aversive stimuli. We will use mild electric shocks (up to 16V) or brief holding by a soft sponge capture mechanism developed in the Chittka laboratory to study responses to predation (Ings & Chittka 2008 Curr Biol 18: 1520-1524). It will be crucial to measure long-term responses, not the reflexive avoidance response to stimuli. In line with the responses used to diagnose pain in vertebrates, we will explore: a) the presence of nociceptors and their neural connections to the brain; b) an endogenous opioid system (or equivalent) by which animals can self-modulate pain in line with current requirements; c) avoidance learning – exploring how animals learn about the conditions surrounding the noxious stimulus to subsequently avoid it; d) long term behaviour changes – suspension of normal behaviour for an extended period, indicating discomfort and wariness of further noxious stimuli; e) physiological equivalents of anxiety, e.g. measuring breathing and heart rate, as well as serotonin levels in affected animals; f) the self-administration of analgesics, and whether such self-administration can be maladaptive when dealing with potentially injurious threats. 


The studentship will cover tuition fees and provide an annual tax-free maintenance allowance for 3 years at the Research Council rate (£16,777 in 2018/19). 

Eligibility and Applying

Applications are invited from candidates with, or expecting to be awarded, a degree (UK 1st or 2:1 or equivalent qualification) in a relevant area. A masters degree is desirable, but not essential, and relevant research experience may also be taken into account. Applicants from outside of the UK are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our entry requirements page for details.

Informal enquiries about the project can be made by email to Professor Lars Chittka ( Formal applications should be submitted online by the stated deadline. 

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  • Chittka L. (2017) Bee cognition. Current Biology 27(19): R1049–R1053. DOI: 
  • Ings, T.C. & Chittka, L. (2008). Speed accuracy tradeoffs and false alarms in bee responses to cryptic predators. Current Bology, 18: 1520-1524. 
  • Perry C.J., Baciadonna L. & Chittka L. (2016). Unexpected rewards induce dopamine-dependent positive emotion–like state changes in bumblebees. Science 353(6307):1529-1531; DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf4454.