Training The Trainer: Scientists Discover Bumblebees Can Be Trained, Pass On Learned Ability To The Colony
Bumblebees can be trained to pull strings for food and they can pass on this ability to a colony, says research from the Queen Mary University of London.
Published in the journal PLOS Biology, the research showed that rare innovator bees were capable of solving a problem involving pulling a string to get sugar water by themselves while others could be trained to pull the string, eventually getting to the reward on their own. And when these trained bees went back to their colony, the skill they learned was passed down to succeeding generations, which helped in ensuring the bee population's longevity.
Sylvain Alem and colleagues initially worked with 40 bees trained to pull a string attached to an artificial blue flower. Out of this group, 23 were able to complete the task. Another set of bees was given the chance to carry out the task without training, but just two out of 110 succeeded, suggesting that solving the task without training is a rare occurrence.
Another set of bees was allowed to observe the trained group and 60 percent of them were able to learn the skill. And when they put the trained bees in the colonies, the researchers saw that the skill successfully spread to most of the worker bees in a colony.
As an experiment, pulling strings for food is usually utilized to test intelligence in birds and apes. The research is the first to show the technique being practiced by an insect and an invertebrate animal.
According to Alem, lead author of the study, their work showed that when the right ecological and social conditions are met, culture can be spread by using combined forms of learning. As such, cultural transmission is not relegated to species with high cognitive sophistication nor is it a feature attributed to humans entirely.
"[U]nderstanding social learning and culture in animals holds a key to understanding the evolutionary roots of the peculiarities of social learning and culture in humans," added Clint Perry, also a lead author of the study.
To learn more about culture in animals, the researchers are looking into exploring the neural capacities of bees that allowed the skill to develop. They find it particularly fascinating because bees have such small brains and nervous systems and yet are capable of a range of cognitive tasks and behaviors.
In another research, bumblebees were shown to be capable of expressing behaviors similar to positive emotions. This occurs when they are fed sugar water and has a lot to do with dopamine, the feel-good hormone.
Photo: Timo Tervo | Flickr
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