Maybe you missed this tidbit in the news, so let me catch you up. A group of researchers has been training bees to do tricks, aka “nonnatural object manipulation.” Last Saturday evening I was searching through a scientific journal for articles about bees. (Reading articles about bees is our idea of a fun Saturday night, and it is a big reason why my husband and I can get by with a very low entertainment budget.) Imagine my surprise when I read a title in the journal PLOS Biology called, “Associated Mechanisms Allow for Social Learning and Cultural Transmission of String Pulling in an Insect.” Why would anyone want to teach an insect to pull a string? Is somebody looking to start a bee circus similar to the flea circuses of the early twentieth century? (Flea circuses were actually a thing once. However, the fleas were not really trained. They were harnessed to objects, and when the fleas jumped the objects moved providing the illusion of trained fleas.) I had to find answers to these questions, so I read the article. The study was done with a species of bumblebees common to Europe (Bombus terrestris). The research group was led by Dr. Lars Chittka at Queen Mary University of London. The scientists wanted to see if they could train bees to perform a nonnatural object manipulation task, which in this case was to pull a string. You may not know this but string pulling is a common problem solving activity used to investigate cognition in animals. Amazingly the researchers were able to train the bees to pull strings to obtain a reward. The training was done in a stepwise approach similar to how one trains a dog. Sugar water was offered as the reward rather than dog biscuits. If you use the hyperlink above to access the article, you can see videos of the various stages of bee training. If you have never seen someone training a bee to pull a string, then pop some popcorn and get ready for some entertainment! Here is the really fascinating bit…..After a bee is trained, it is capable of training other bees to perform the task. The trained bees didn’t just show the other bees where to go to get the sugar water treat. The trained bees showed the other bees how to perform the task. The untrained bees learned by watching the trained bees. The researchers found that once a single bee was trained, the skill could be taught to the majority of the other foraging bees. The newly trained bees could then train other bees ensuring the skill persisted even after the original trained bee died. Interestingly, even though bees were capable of training others, they showed no cooperation and did not work together to solve the task. Apparently these bees prefer to complete their tasks solo. The bees demonstrated multiple associative mechanisms when learning the string pulling task. The bees failed to master the task when the string was coiled. The bees needed to see the relationship between pulling the string and the motion of the artificial flower to which the string was attached. When the string was coiled, the flower did not immediately move when the string was pulled. Overall the studies show these bumblebees can be trained novel tasks and can utilize multiple associative mechanisms to learn those tasks.
The researchers next began training bees to move balls into a hole. This research was published in the prestigious journal Science. (I wasn’t able to access the full paper, just the abstract. The hyperlink takes you to the abstract where you may then purchase the full paper from the publisher.) The bees learned best when watching another trained bee demonstrate the task rather than watching a “ghost” demonstration where a magnet was responsible for moving the ball. If multiple balls were scattered around the hole, the bees knew to move the ball closest to the hole in order to expend the least amount of energy to get their reward. The bees’ use of an object to complete a task caused the authors to speculate about the bees’ use of tools, which was once thought to be something that only humans did. Other species besides humans have since been shown to use tools, and maybe bumblebees should be added to the list.
This very exciting research then took a turn. If you can teach a bee to move a ball to a hole, why not teach it to play soccer? I can only imagine that some graduate students had too many beers at the pub, started talking about the World Cup, and then said, “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if we taught the bees to play soccer?” On second thought, maybe training bees to play soccer wasn’t born out of drunkenness but rather out of marketing genius. The mainstream media was attracted to the research because who wouldn’t want to watch bees playing soccer? You can now see bees playing a version of bee soccer on You Tube.
Let me stop the story for a moment to say this research could seem frivolous when taken out of context. I can see headlines now about how research dollars were wasted training bees to play soccer. The overall objective of the work was not to train bees to play soccer. The overall objective was to better understand bees’ cognitive processes, mechanisms for learning, and cultural transmission. Dr. Chittka’s group website states: “We study the mechanisms and evolution of the sensory systems and behavior of a wide variety of bee species.” This field of study is incredibly important given the enormous environmental pressures being placed on bees and their importance in the ecosystem. By better understanding bees, people can hopefully devise more effective strategies to preserve bee populations.
What is obvious after reviewing the research is that bees are amazing creatures that are far more sophisticated than many people realize. The next time you are gardening, take time to admire the bumblebees. You never know if that bee will one day be headed to the World Cup!