Tiny yet Intelligent, Bumblebees Score it with a "Soccer" Game

Scientists know that bees can learn to pull a string to reach an artificial flower containing sugar solution.

Rolling balls on a platform to a designated space shows the bumblebees can see, repeat and even improve upon a set of visual instructions, the scientists contend. One group only saw the ball in the correct location, another saw the ball move to the correct location with a hidden magnet, and a third actually saw a previously trained bee move the farthest ball to the center of the location to obtain the reward of sugar water. Nearly 80% of the bees learnt exceptionally well through demonstration, whereas the rest were given a chance to watch previously trained bees perform the task and this helped them to emerge as the most effective learners.

But for Dr. Perry, the study indicates that bees are more intelligent than we generally give them credit for-and understanding that is could be helpful in any move towards protecting them. Bees sometimes have to pull parts of flowers to access nectar, so this isn't a hard concept to learn. When the three groups were tested, the observer bees in the social group were more successful and took less time to solve the task than did the ghost demonstration group, and the ghost demonstration group was on average more successful than the no demonstration group.

This suggests that the bees weren't merely copying others' behavior. And they occasionally remove fat nearly ball-like grubs from the nest with a similar technique.

To do this, we used a plastic model bee on the end of a transparent stick to move a tiny ball across a platform as a real bumblebee watched. The newly trained bees, when allowed to attempt the task, rolled the closest balls into the net, even when the ball was a different color than the color seen in the demonstration.

The study hints that bees can use this problem-solving skill to deal with changes to their environment, including a change of food sources. "This all shows an unprecedented level of cognitive flexibility, especially for a miniature brain". Bees that saw the magnetic demonstration also were more successful than those that did not view it.

Instead, the bee-keeper is more likely to seize on the path of least resistance because it's far more hard to replace all of the bees when they could just kill the queen to keep the others happy.

Learning abilities of animals without big vertebrate brains often get severely underestimated, Loukola says. He says that people tend to look for simple explanations when small-brained animals do something, but consider the same thing a complex phenomenon when it's done by vertebrates.

They are small and yet smarter than some of the humans.

"Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioral flexibility", he said.

They made a decision to challenge the bees with something they would not have encountered before, namely a simplified version of "The Beautiful Game".

  • Joey Payne