Hi, we’re IFLScience. You may remember us from such stories as that adorable "baby platypus" is actually a rock and “Shower Rat” was probably in pain. Here to deliver another sobering slice of reality to the viral internet halls of fame, this time we want to talk bees.
In 2020, public folklorist Steve Byrne posted a thread debunking claims that a heart-shaped honeycomb was the result of free-form creativity on the part of the bees that had been left without frames to dictate the shape of their architecture. Extensive digging on the part of Byrne revealed this was not the case, and that instead, the heart-shaped honeycomb was a gift to the wife of a creative human who used a cutout to influence the bees’ comb building.
You can imagine our hesitance, then, when a recent video went viral of two bees “opening” a bottle of Fanta together. Eager not to have the honey pulled over our eyes, we wanted to dig a little deeper into the “motivations” behind this seemingly sophisticated collaborative problem-solving behavior. Was it an act of teamwork or accident?
“It's very hard to know what's going on from a single clipped video like that,” Professor in Sensory and Behavioural Ecology Dr Lars Chittka, who heads up the Bee Sensory and Behavioural Ecology Lab at the Queen Mary University of London, told IFLScience. Indeed, it’s important to note that we can’t know for certain if the video is even real (are bee deep fakes a thing?). But, moving forward under the assumption that it is, what might the video show?
“I think the most likely scenario is that the two bees independently had become "Fanta drinkers" before this was filmed, but mostly through discarded bottles that were openly accessible,” explained Chittka. “It is interesting though that they seem to both move the cap in the correct direction. Bees certainly can learn such techniques, but typically only through multiple learning opportunities, not spontaneously by insight. I don't know if the observer gave the bees multiple learning trials, though this is perhaps unlikely.”
Learning trials is certainly something Chittka knows a thing or two about, having demonstrated in his own research that bees can indeed be trained to work together when trying to access a food source. This research has seen bumblebees tugging on strings both on their own and in groups, and showed that beyond establishing the skill themselves the bees were able to learn from each other and share information, seeing string pulling spread to the majority of worker bees in a colony.
According to Chittka, the bees in the Fanta video are honeybees, Apis mellifera, and while their recorded behavior probably isn’t the result of teamwork, it’s probably not a total accident that they were able to remove the lid either.
“Bees learn individually to identify the flower features that come with rewarding nectar, and many species (including honeybees) are extremely flexible in that learning: it doesn't have to be a flower, it can be a sugary drink bottle whose visual signals (e.g. the cap's or drink colour, and the drink's scent) they have come to associate with sugary rewards,” he told IFLScience. “Since discarded bottles are generally all over the place in parks etc, they have plenty of opportunities to make such associations.”
Collaborative efforts are of course not unheard of among bees, famous for their (non-heart-shaped) comb construction, colony defense, and swarming behavior. As yet, however, Chittka tells us there’s nothing in the way of published evidence to show that they are capable of meeting fellow bee brethren in the field and spontaneously carrying out a coordinated maneuver to overcome an obstacle.
Sugary drinks in sunlight have little trouble affixing their fruity goodness to surfaces and so the bees were probably met with the promise of Fanta on the grooves of the bottle cap. By both inserting their mouth parts to reach the soda dregs, it's possible they were able to generate the right torque to the screw-lid cap to reach the liquid gold inside.
Lifting the lid on a bottle of soda remains an impressive feat for sugar-seeking insects, but probably not one that indicates the pollinators are pushing for world domination imminently. Then again, if the above meeting looks to be what it seems, we might be steeling ourselves for the wrong coup.