Talking to plants

By Sabiha Malik

Founder of The World Bee Project CIC

Life is conscious

To me, the entire web of life seems conscious. I’ve always talked to plants, especially wild, outdoor plants. A few times, to convince sceptical friends, I’ve ‘persuaded’ summer plants – agapanthus and hydrangeas – to bloom outdoors in cold London winters. I’ve learnt that plants can react, communicate, and collaborate in subjective, individual ways.

How do plants ‘hear’?

Now, thanks to the work of plant behaviour researchers, we are beginning to understand that plants are responsive and can perceive and feel things. They have active social lives – they communicate above and below ground. They sense and react to their environments and have active relationships with pollinators. Two examples: Evening Primrose plants step up nectar production when they ‘hear’ their pollinators’ specific vibration frequencies. Arabidopsis (rockcress) plants use unique wavelength profiles of light reflecting off neighbouring plants to ‘spot’ their relatives.


Are plants conscious?

The possibility fits in with the concept of consciousness called integrated information theory, “the ability to integrate multiple aspects of experience into a whole, irrespective of the system, whether it be a brain, the computer chip or a plant. The more integration, the greater the level of consciousness”.

Some plant capabilities are hard-wired evolutionary responses to situations. Still, other behaviours arise from electrical activity in their vascular tissues and the use of the kind of signalling molecules also present in animals. Researchers Paco Calvo at the University of Murcia in Spain and Miguel Segundo-Ortin at Utrecht University in the Netherlands suggest that plants may possess the underlying structure to support sentience and some form of consciousness. They have identified three crucial factors. Firstly, plants’ cognitive behaviour is dynamic, which means it is flexible. Secondly, it is predictive, which means it anticipates environmental changes. Thirdly, it is goal-oriented; it can successfully cause a change in the organism or the environment. When tomato plants anticipate caterpillar predators, they release chemicals that encourage their caterpillar predators to gobble each other up.

Plants are so intelligent that they have even ‘taught’ us to photosynthesise. Wait for the next newsletter!

Suggested Reading:

  • Planta Sapiens: unmasking plant intelligence, by Natalie Lawrence and Paco Calvo.


Sabiha Malik founded The World Bee Project CIC in 2014 to utilise AI and novel technologies to initiate a global perspective, addressing pollinator and biodiversity decline, food insecurity, climate change and threats to human wellbeing as a single interactive, interconnected challenge confronting humanity. Sabiha believes that bees lie at the heart of the relationships that bind the natural and human worlds, and in safeguarding bees lies the means to safeguard life itself.