We know that bees are capable of communicating a great deal of information to one another through their waggle dance, but they aren’t typically regarded as being incredible learners. However, two new studies from Hamida Mirwan and Peter Kevan from the University of Guelph have demonstrated that bumblebees are capable of learning problem-solving solutions and a sweet treat is a heck of an incentive.
The first study gave bumblebees a series of increasingly complex obstacles before they could access an artificial flower that offered a syrup reward. They noticed that the bees who had progressed from the easiest to hardest obstacles were able to solve all of the problems, but the bees who had been placed in front of the most difficult obstacle first just gave up. Some of the problems included having to move items out of the way that had been blocking access to the sugar syrup at the flower.
In humans, this progressive type learning is described as “scaffold learning.” Though the term doesn’t typically get applied to nonhuman species, the researchers think that similarities exist in the case of bumblebees. The results of this study were published in the journal Animal Cognition.
During the second study, the researchers found that bumblebees are capable of social learning, where they can watch other bees complete tasks and then learn how to solve those problems for themselves.
Over the course of many days, the researchers trained bumblebees to walk on the underside of a surface to gain access to an artificial flower with sugar syrup as the reward. A different group of bees had been isolated, though they were able to observe the training and feedings. When they were finally able to try for themselves, the previously naïve bees were able to correctly access the flower in about a minute. When a control group that had not observed how to get to the flower were given the opportunity to try, they were not able to solve the puzzle.
Mirwan noted that social learning in animals typically comes from imitation, though communication could also be used. Because bumblebee communication is complex, that could have been a large factor in how the bees were able to learn to navigate the obstacles so quickly. These results were published in the journal Psyche: A Journal of Entomology.