Bumblebees spread the buzz about learning throughout their hives, study reveals

LONDON — Bumblebees learn to solve problems by watching each other — just like humans, a new study explains. Scientists say behavioral preferences of more experienced peers then spreads throughout the colony. The findings show that these pollinators are even more intelligent than previously thought — bringing new implications for bee conservation efforts.

Until now, scientists thought this phenomenon was only something that existed among bigger animals, likes primates and birds.

Bumblebees – and, indeed, invertebrates in general – aren’t known to show culture-like phenomena in the wild. However, in our experiments, we saw the spread and maintenance of a behavioral ‘trend’ in groups of bumblebees – similar to what has been seen in primates and birds,” says Dr. Alice Bridges, the study’s lead author from Queen Mary University of London, in a media release.

“The behavioral repertoires of social insects like these bumblebees are some of the most intricate on the planet, yet most of this is still thought to be instinctive. Our research suggests that social learning may have had a greater influence on the evolution of this behavior than previously imagined.”

The team at London’s Queen Mary University carried out a series of experiments on six colonies using a puzzle box. The bees could open it by rotating a lid clockwise or counterclockwise to access a sugary treat. They did this by pushing one of two different colored tabs.

Researchers trained the bees to use one of these two solutions and then released them into a foraging arena alongside untrained individuals.

bees learning to complete a puzzle
Bees feeding from a puzzle box opened by pushing the blue tab. CREDIT: Alice Bridges (CC-BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Bees learn to solve problems by watching their clever peers

The team filmed them all over a period of six to 12 days. Those with a “demonstrator” opened more boxes than “controls,” using the same technique 98.6 percent of the time.

This suggests that they learned rather than stumbling across the solution themselves. Where demonstrators were each taught a different method, untrained bees initially picked up both strategies. Over time, they randomly opted for one or the other, which then became the dominant strategy in that colony.

The study is the first to document the spread of different approaches to solving the same problem among bees. It provides strong evidence social learning is important for the survival of colonies.

“These results in bumblebees, which are tiny-brained invertebrates, echo those previously found using similar experiments in primates and birds – which were used to demonstrate the capacity of those species for culture,” Dr. Bridges adds in a statement.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS Biology, show observing and imitating the behavior of others may be more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought. Social animals like primates are skilled at it. Previous work has identified the same characteristics in individual bees. However, it’s been unclear whether these new behaviors would then spread through the colony.

“The fact that bees can watch and learn, and then make a habit of that behavior, adds to the ever-growing body of evidence that they are far smarter creatures than a lot of people give them credit for,” says Professor Lars Chittka, a professor of Sensory and Behavioral Ecology at Queen Mary University of London and author of the book “The Mind of a Bee.”

“We tend to overlook the ‘alien civilizations’ formed by bees, ants and wasps on our planet – because they are small-bodied and their societies and architectural constructions seem governed by instinct at first glance. Our research shows, however, that new innovations can spread like social media memes through insect colonies, indicating that they can respond to wholly new environmental challenges much faster than by evolutionary changes, which would take many generations to manifest.”

Bees play a vital role in nature

Prof. Chittka has been studying bees for 30 years and is one of the world’s leading experts on their sensory systems and cognition. In his book, he argues bees need our protection, not just because they are useful for crop pollination and biodiversity, but because they may be sentient beings — and humans have an ethical obligation to ensure their survival.

“Our work and that of other labs has shown that bees are really highly intelligent individuals. That they can count, recognize images of human faces and learn simple tool use and abstract concepts,” Prof. Chittka adds, according to a release from SWNS.

The study author thinks bees have emotions, can plan and imagine things, and can recognize themselves as unique entities distinct from other bees. These insects produce over a third of our food. However, their populations are in danger due to climate change, pesticides, and diseases — reducing our ability to grow crops.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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