Bumblebees can bend it like Bee-ckham. Researchers have trained them to be able to score a ball into a “goal” to receive a sugary reward, in what is thought to show that the insects are capable of complex learning. Not only that, but they suggest it may also be an example of bees using tools.
The experiment to teach bees soccer is not just for fun, but has some pretty profound consequences. The stripy insects have been taught how to do complex behaviors before, such as pulling on strings to get a sugary hit not too dissimilar to how they pull flowers apart, but all of these have mimicked similar tasks that bees might encounter in the wild.
By showing that the bees can learn something entirely new and alien to what might be experienced naturally, the researchers have shown that insects have complex cognitive workings. “Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioral flexibility and only simple learning abilities,” explains Professor Lars Chittka, who co-authored the paper in Science, in a statement.
The researchers wanted to find out if the bees could move a ball to a specific location in order to get a sugary syrup reward. First of all, the insects were shown where the ball should be in the "bee arena". The team then trained a cohort of bees under three separate conditions. One group was shown a previously trained bee completing the task, another shown a “ghost bee” in which the researchers used magnets to move the ball to the center, and the third was shown no demonstration and simply found the ball in the middle already.
Those bees that watched another doing the task were more likely to be able to complete it themselves, but amazingly they didn’t just mirror the teacher bee’s actions, they expanded on it. “The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it,” says Dr Olli J. Loukola, joint lead author. “This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect.”
The researchers think that this behavioral flexibility could be an important attribute for the insects. For example, if the environment in which they live changes, it would allow them to rapidly adapt. But they also suggest that it could be argued the bees are using tools, in a similar way to how chimps put sticks in holes to get honey. This would place the humble insect in a very select group of animals that have been shown to have the advanced cognitive ability to do so.