Can insects feel pain? Two alums explore that possibility and what it means for insect welfare.

By Robyn Rime

Aside from animated movies starring adorable bugs, people don’t generally think about insects having feelings. Many scientists have long believed insects are not sentient—that they’re incapable of feeling anything, including pain.

But what if they were?

Two Geneseo alums, Meghan Barrett ’16, PhD, and Bob Fischer ’04, PhD, are collaborating on issues of insect sentience and welfare. Barrett, who double majored in biology and English (creative writing) at Geneseo, is now a National Science Foundation post-doctoral research fellow at California State University Dominguez Hills. Barrett is an insect neurobiologist and physiologist, studying insect behaviors and anatomy—especially the brain. Fischer, an English and philosophy grad and associate professor of philosophy at Texas State University, has built a reputation as an animal ethicist. Connected across disciplines by Geneseo associate professor of philosophy David Levy, they are two of a small but growing group researchers worldwide exploring what the possibility of insect pain might mean for their ethical treatment.

It’s hard to prove that any animal feels pain—insects included. Many scientists have assumed that insect nervous systems are too small and their behaviors too inflexible for them to experience pain. However, a recent article Barrett co-authored with an international team of academics assessed more than 300 studies relevant to insect pain—and, startlingly, found that the evidence against insect pain is unconvincing. 

Moreover, the authors found some evidence suggesting that some insects may be capable of experiencing pain. The paper concluded that “Insect pain is plausible and deserves further study.”

One wonders: If an insect could feel pain, would that stop you from killing it on your kitchen floor? Probably not. But what about killing a billion insects, or a trillion, or a quadrillion? 

Meghan Barrett ’16. /Photo courtesy of Nick Seibert and CASTLE Center.

“From an ethical standpoint, whether insects feel pain is an urgent question,” says Barrett. Each year, billions are used as research models to study everything from ecology and evolution to chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. Trillions are farmed for the food and feed industry, with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization promoting insect farming to help feed a burgeoning global population. Quadrillions—or a thousand trillions—are managed in the wild with pesticides and other control agents. And unlike for many vertebrate species, no guidelines or legislation exist on their ethical treatment, based largely on the assumption that they feel no pain.

But what if they do?

“We shouldn’t cause pain unnecessarily,” says Barrett. “If insects are sentient, there are situations where we’re probably causing pain that we could easily prevent. Given our uncertainty, we need to investigate the issue carefully.”

It may be many years before science has compelling evidence on insect sentience, especially given the number and diversity of insects. This is where Barrett’s and Fischer’s work moves into the arena of insect welfare. “Suppose they might be sentient,” says Fischer. “Then, when the stakes are low, we should treat insects as though they’re sentient. They deserve some consideration in our moral deliberations.” 

Bob Fischer ’04

For these two, moral consideration means making evidence-based recommendations for specific contexts that don’t require legislation and can be win-wins for welfare and other goals: Producers could choose more humane slaughter methods, which may also increase product safety. Pesticide application could be more targeted, which may also reduce cost. Scientists could reduce the number of wild insects used in studies, which may also support conservation goals. So, ethical recommendations may not only improve insect welfare but also result in practices that are less labor intensive, less costly, and more sustainable. 

Barrett is particularly interested in farmed insects, where welfare improvements may be economically beneficial and help mitigate risks. “In the next five to ten years, the insect food and feed industry is going to grow very rapidly,” she says. “Any recommendations I can give now will support the industry in its commitment to ethical practices. It doesn’t have to be a burdensome task, and can even be beneficial, to address welfare while we wait for more evidence on the sentience question.”

The concept of insect pain often makes people uncomfortable. Why, people ask, don’t Barrett and Fischer focus their attention on animals that we know are sentient? Why not focus on issues that alleviate human suffering, like curing cancer or solving climate change?

Many other experts are working on those issues, says Barrett, and she has faith in their expertise. “But as an entomologist, I’m using my expertise to positively impact the lives of insects insofar as they can be positively impacted.”

Fischer’s perspective is more philosophical, of course, and rather to the point. “We care about pain wherever it’s found,” he says. “And it might be found here.”