Bumblebee brains are about 0.0002 percent the size of a human’s. But despite their puny, pin-head mass of brain matter, they are able to express a high level of practical and social intelligence.
That's according to new research from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). In the research, bumblebees were able to execute challenges that required them to pull strings to access food, and then – amazingly – pass on that skill throughout the colony by “cultural transmission.” The study was published this week in PLOS Biology.
The investigation involved strings attached to three artificial blue flowers covered in sucrose, the bees' favorite food. The flowers were placed under a clear screen and were only accessible by pulling on the string. Out of 40 bees, 23 learned this little trick and were able to pull out the flower using their legs.
It’s one of the first times an insect has shown it can do this Pavlovian "string-pulling" problem-solving task, which is typically used to assess the cognitive ability of apes and birds. This is an impressive feat for these bees in itself.
However, even more remarkably, naïve bees were then allowed to observe the trained bees performing the task. Of these naïve bees, 60 per cent were then able to successfully learn the skill. The researchers then placed the trained bees back into their colony and the technique spread to a majority of the worker bees.
A bee in action. Sylvain Alem/Queen Mary University London
“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. Thus, cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans,” Dr Sylvain Alem, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
Professor Lars Chittka, project supervisor of the study, added: “We are exploring this through modeling information processing in parts of the insect brain, and we find that often, exceedingly difficult tasks, for example in visual pattern recognition or floral scent learning, can be solved with extremely simple neural circuits. We are still a long way from understanding the required neural circuitry for string-pulling, however.”
Next up, they hope to further study the capacity of culture and sociability among animals in the hopes of shedding light on the evolutionary past of more complex forms of culture in humans.