Bumble bees have already proven themselves remarkable animals. They possess complex navigational skills, rudimentary culture, and emotions. They can even use tools: Scientists have shown that the insects can learn to pull a string—and so get a sugary reward—by watching another bee perform the task. Although bees don’t pull strings in the wild, they do sometimes pull or push aside flower petals and parts that may resemble strings.
“That made us wonder if bees could learn to do something with an object they had never encountered in their evolutionary history,” says Olli Loukola, a behavioral ecologist at Queen Mary University of London, an author on the string work.
So in the new study, Loukola and colleagues made the bees forage for sugar water by moving a small, yellow ball to a specific target (as in the video above)—something far removed from what the insects do in the wild. The scientists first trained the bees to know that the ball had to be in a target location in order to yield sugar water. Then each insect was shown three yellow balls placed at varying distances from the target. Some bees watched a previously trained bee move the farthest ball to the target and get a reward. Other bees watched a “ghost”—a magnet beneath the platform—move the farthest ball. And a third group didn’t see a demonstration; they simply found the ball already at the target with the reward.
In separate tests, each bee was subsequently challenged to move one of the three balls to the target within five minutes. The 10 bumble bees that watched a sister perform the task were the most successful, the scientists report today in Science. They also solved the task faster than those that watched the ghost or didn’t see a demonstration. Some of the latter bees solved the task entirely on their own.
The bees quickly figured out a better way to move the ball, too. Although those that watched the demonstrator initially pushed the ball to the target, in subsequent trials, they walked backward and pulled the ball—an unexpected and innovative change, the scientists say.
Read More: AAAS
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