Bee Sentience and its Welfare Implications

Format of work:

Conference Presentation

Event presented at / Journal Name:

AWRN Workshop on Insects as Mini-Livestock

Speaker / Contact Author's Name:

Lars Chittka

Speaker / Contact Author's E-mail Address:

  • Research aim:

    To discover whether insects have the capacity to suffer and experience pain.

  • Background:

    Decades of research have revealed that at least some insects are remarkably intelligent. Bees for example can count, recognise human faces, solve tasks by thinking rather than trial and error, and learn simple tool use by observing skilled conspecifics. The led to the question of whether they are also sentient – i.e. whether they can also experience emotions. If the answer is yes, and if these findings generalise to other insects, then this has major implications for the welfare of farmed species such as mealworms, black soldier flies and crickets.

  • Approach:

    Using the same psychological and neurobiological criteria as those used for vertebrates, we test if bees and other insects have emotion-like states, including the capacity to feel pain. This question cannot be answered with formal certainty in any non-human animal, because of the lack of language. However, the more of the following criteria an animal fulfils, the more likely it is to experience pain: presence of nociceptors (damage-indicating sensors); neural connections between nociceptors and the brain; sensory integration of noxious stimuli with other sensory inputs in the brain; effectiveness of analgesics and self-medication when injured; learning from painful experiences; motivational tradeoffs (pitching painful experiences against rewards); protection of injured limbs.

  • Key finding:

    Bees display key indicators of sentience, including positive and negative cognitive biases (“optimism v pessimism”), play like behaviour (indicating a capacity to enjoy activities), and a capacity to respond flexibly (not reflex-like) to noxious stimuli, indicating the capacity to feel pain. Many other insects fulfil sufficiently many criteria for pain experiences to indicate with reasonable certainty that ethical concerns for their welfare are important.

  • Industry or policy relevance:

    The insect food-and-feed industry rears and slaughters insects (e.g. crickets, black soldier flies, mealworms) by the trillion. One perceived advantage of rearing insects rather than conventional livestock is that supposedly there are no welfare concerns. However, some of the slaughtering methods used (e.g. baking, micro-waving, boiling etc.) have the potential to generate intense suffering. It is important to conduct further research on ethical rearing procedures and humane methods of slaughtering.

  • Route for practical application:

    Given the present state of knowledge, it would be appropriate to add some insects animal (sentience) act in the UK and similar legislation elsewhere. This needs to go hand in hand with further research into the question of pain experiences with a focus on farmed insect species, and the specific question of what constitutes ethically defensible rearing procedures and slaughtering methods that minimize suffering.

  • Confidence in findings and next steps towards realising impact:

    The published literature (see e.g. references below) indicates that with very high certainty, at least some insects have the capacity to suffer and have pain-like experiences.


My work is, or has in the past been, funded by the ERC, EPSRC, HFSP and NERC (among others).

Links to Open Access Publications or DOI:


Chittka, L. 2023. “Bee sentience and its welfare implications“. AWRN-Workshop on Insects as mini-livestock: Should we be concerned with their welfare?, 21st February 2023.