Give bees the insect version of soccer and you can expect them to master it in no time, a new study reveals.
These creatures are not only efficient pollinators but also capable of scoring goals and advanced learning, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London. This ability, the team reported, could lead the bees to learn new behaviors in the face of ecological pressure.
A Lesson In Scoring A Goal, Straight From The Bees
The study ventured to examine bees’ ability to carry out tasks that they do not naturally encounter, with previous studies showing that they are capable of advanced cognitive tasks. Bumblebees watches their fellows tug a ball into a goal, which earned the player a taste of sugar water, and it turned out that they could also carry out the mission on their own.
"We wanted to explore the cognitive limits of bumblebees by testing whether they could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before by any individual in the evolutionary history of bees," said co-lead author Dr. Clint Perry in a statement.
The researchers required a group of Bombus terrestris bumblebees to move a wooden ball smack in the center of a platform for some reward food. They then performed the task while test bees observed, and after three sessions it was the test bees’ turn to maneuver the ball.
The test bees achieved their goal nearly every time, meaning they likely picked up on visual and social cues during the demonstration. Bees without the benefit of training or demonstration scored only about 30 percent of the time.
Furthering testing the insects’ abilities, the team provided each demonstrator bee with three balls, with two glued in place while one was positioned farthest from the goal and rolling freely. The demonstrators carried that one to the goal.
Watching these sessions, the test bees were also presented with three balls rolling freely, and instead of mimicking the previous bees’ actions through moving the farthest ball, they chose the easier way, moving the closest ball.
Higher Learning In Action
Macquarie University neuroethologist Ken Cheng dubbed it “goal emulation” or actions that pursue a goal instead of mere imitation.
“[T]hat’s fairly sophisticated,” he said in a Scientific American report.
For Perry, this only proves that small brains are not necessarily simpler or less efficient, as tiny insect brain can also accomplish more than what is previously thought.
Co-lead author Dr. Olli Loukola was impressed that the bumblebees not merely copied but instead found a better way to do things. It may be that they have the cognitive know-how to solve complex tasks amid environmental challenges that make such behaviors necessary, Loukola added.
The findings were discussed in the journal Science.
A separate study published in March 2016 found that even low levels of pesticides — particularly a neonicotinoid insecticide called thiamethoxam — can make it hard for bees to learn and remember, seriously disrupting their foraging behavior. The effects were seen in how bumblebees foraged from common wildflowers that maintained complex shapes.