Bumblebees: Smarter than you think

Madeline Pfeifer
Staff Writer

It has become apparent that tiny brains do not necessarily equate to limited learning capabilities. Although bumblebees’ brains may be small, they are evidently more powerful than previously understood to be.

Slide 1

Photo Courtesy of Max Pixel SCIENTISTS FROM Queen Mary University of London found that bumblebees can learn tasks and behavior by observing other bumblebees at work.

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London aimed to investigate the cognitive capabilities of bumblebees.

Previous research has established that bumblebees can efficiently perform several cognitive tasks that involve learning and memory. However, these tasks, like pulling a string in order to receive food, resemble behaviors that the bees might exhibit in a natural environment.

These researchers hoped to study bees’ behavioral flexibility and their ability to accomplish unfamiliar and unusual tasks that they would not normally encounter in nature.

For this, the researchers analyzed the bees’ ability to learn a novel task involving colored mini-balls. The bumblebees had to move a ball to a specific location on a platform, where they were subsequently rewarded with food.

Prior to the experiment, the bees were trained to recognize the specified location on the platform that would result in the reward. The training phase was organized in a way so that the bumblebees were trained under one of three conditions. Under the first condition, the bees observed a previously trained, demonstrator bee accurately complete the task.

There were three balls scattered on the platform, all at different distances from the center. The unskilled bumblebees watched as the skilled bees moved the furthest mini-ball to the center of the platform. The untrained bees had three chances to view the demonstrator bee perform the task and obtain a reward.

The second training condition entailed unskilled bees observing a “ghost” demonstration in which a hidden magnet moved the mini-ball. The remaining bumblebees received no demonstration; they were simply presented with the ball already in the correct location with a reward present.

It was determined that the bumblebees that observed a demonstrator bee learned the task more effectively than the groups with the ghost presentation or with no presentation at all. When the untrained bumblebees completed the task after having seen the skilled bees, they were more likely to move the closest ball instead of moving the furthest one, like they had observed.

Some even moved a mini-ball that was differently colored than the one they had seen the demonstrator bumblebee move. Completing the task in a different manner than how they learned it signifies that the bumblebees were not simply copying behavior.

The bees were capable of discerning the task at hand.

Not only did they successfully learn the behavior, they modified and applied it in a way that was appropriate for the setting. This strongly suggests the presence of cognitive flexibility.

This study builds upon the idea that animals, even insects, have the key ability to learn complex cognitive tasks and apply the newfound knowledge efficiently.