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Bees Can Be Trained To Pull Strings For Food And Teach Each Other

Photo from QMUL

Animals have been known to demonstrate their intelligence by responding to training. Apes and birds, for example, have shown that they can pull a string to access food. Now, a surprising new species has joined them in performing the same task: bumblebees.

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have successfully gotten bumblebees to learn and apply the skill. This breakthrough is not only the first time insects have been able to perform in this method, but the researchers discovered that the trained bees were also able to spread – in essence, teach – the skill to the rest of the colony. The study has brought up questions on social learning, intelligence and culture in animals, New Atlas reports.

The scientists started training with three artificial flowers containing sugar water, attached to pieces of string. The flowers were placed under a clear Plexiglas panel with the end of the strings out, to see how the bees would work out the problem and get to the prize. In the first control group of 110 bees, only two managed to figure out the puzzle without training.

A second group of bees was trained. The flowers were moved further back a little at a time until 23 out of 40 bees caught on and learned to pull the string to get the flower. When new, untrained bees were introduced, 60% were able to perform the same task simply by observing what the other bees were doing. After the trained bees had been placed in new colonies, the new skill was passed on to a large part of the bee population, and even down to offspring.

Sylvain Alem, the lead author on the study, says, “We found that when the appropriate social and ecological conditions are present, culture can be mediated by the use of a combination of simple forms of learning.” He concludes that passing on learned skills is not unique to humans, after all. “Thus, cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans.”

This is not the first time bees have demonstrated a superior intelligence than had been previously thought. A previous study, also from QMUL, showed that bees were able to find the quickest way between flowers through train and error – something that was thought to be beyond their capacity.

These findings may help scientists better understand how humans came to have such an advanced structure of social and cultural learnings.

The researchers will continue exploring how bees can perform such refined skills, considering the simplicity of their brains.

The study was published in PLOS Biology.

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