Bees are better at problem solving than previously thought, and can learn tasks totally unlike their natural behaviour, say researchers

Bumblebees can learn how to manoeuvre a ball just by watching others carry out the task, researchers have discovered in the latest study to shed light on the insects’ surprising talents.

While bees have already been shown to be able to learn how to pull on strings, push caps and even rotate a lever to access food, researchers say the new study shows that bees are better at problem solving than we thought.

“Previous research has found that bumblebees can do complex tasks but those tasks have always been really close to natural behaviour,” said Olli Loukola, first author of the research from Queen Mary University of London, pointing out that bees often have to manipulate different parts of a flower to access nectar. “Now we have shown that they can learn something that is totally unnatural, like moving balls.”

In the first part of the study, published in the journal Science, bees were presented with a platform, a yellow ball and a target area containing a concealed reservoir of sucrose.

The bees were repeatedly shown how to manoeuvre the ball over the target area to gain access to the sweet treat by means of fake bee on a stick. They were then tested on their abilities. While 10 bees who were not shown a demonstration almost never managed to succeed in the task, the nine that were all succeeded. What’s more, they improved over test trials, taking less time and shorter paths.

The second experiment involved a platform on which rested three balls at various distances from the centre. Bees were then presented with one of three different training scenarios: a trained bee that moved the furthest ball to the centre, a magnet that could move the furthest ball to the centre, or no training where just one ball was presented and placed in the centre of the platform. The bees were then tested to see if they could accomplish the task of moving one of three balls to the centre to receive a drop of sugar solution.

“This means that the bees didn’t just simply copy the demonstrator and could improve upon the demonstrator’s technique or strategy,” said Loukola. “The fact that they saw the task in different ways than the demonstrator shows a very impressive amount of cognitive flexibility.”

Paul Graham, an expert in insect navigation from the University of Sussex who was not involved in the research, described the findings as a beautiful example of animal behaviour, but added that it was not clear whether the bees chose the closest ball due to strategic planning or for other reasons.

Nevertheless, says Graham, the study emphasises that bees are adapted to persevere when it comes to accessing food. “It is further evidence of social learning and the fact that bees can learn to associate certain actions with reward – both of which reinforce the view that these are smart critters,” he said.

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