Bumblebees learn to solve puzzles by watching more experienced peers – study

Researchers said their work adds to growing evidence that bees are far smarter creatures than previously thought.

Nilima Marshall
Tuesday 07 March 2023 19:00 GMT
Bumblebees learn new “trends” in their behaviour by watching and learning (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Bumblebees learn new “trends” in their behaviour by watching and learning (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Bumblebees learn to solve puzzles by watching more experienced peers, research has shown.

Experts from Queen Mary University of London trained a set of bees (Bombus terrestris) to open a puzzle box containing a sugar reward.

These bees then passed on the knowledge to others in their colonies.

The researchers said their findings, published in the journal Plos Biology, provide “strong evidence” that learning by observing peers can drive behaviour in bumblebees.

Dr Alice Bridges, the lead author, said: “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 behavioural ‘trend’ in groups of bumblebees – similar to what has been seen in primates and birds.

“The behavioural 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 behaviour than previously imagined.”

For the study, the scientists created a puzzle box that can be opened by rotating a lid to access a sugar solution.

Pushing a red tab rotates the lid clockwise while a blue tab makes it go counter-clockwise.

The researchers trained “demonstrator” bees to use one of these two methods to open the lid while the “observer” bees watched.

When the observers tackled the puzzle, the researchers found they chose the same method they had seen 98% of the time, even after discovering the alternative option.

The team also observed that bees with a demonstrator opened more puzzle boxes than control bees.

Our research suggests that social learning may have had a greater influence on the evolution of this behaviour than previously imagined

Dr Alice Bridges

According to the researchers, this suggests the bees learned the behaviour socially rather than discovering the solution themselves.

In additional experiments where both “blue” and “red” demonstrators were released into the same populations of bees, the observer bees initially learned to use both methods, but over time they developed a preference for one solution or the other – which then came to dominate in that colony.

According to the researchers, this shows how a behavioural trend might emerge within the bee population.

In this case, the researchers believe that any changes in foraging behaviour may be due to experienced bees retiring from foraging and new learners arising, rather than the bees changing their preferences.

Lars Chittka, professor of sensory and behavioural ecology at Queen Mary University of London, said: “The fact that bees can watch and learn, and then make a habit of that behaviour, adds to the ever-growing body of evidence that they are far smarter creatures than a lot of people give them credit for.

“We tend to overlook the ‘alien civilisations’ 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.”

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