Bees Can Use Tools—And Train Other Bees to Use Them, Too

Bees are more flexible and adaptable than we realized.

A group of scientists at Queen Mary University of London trained bees to use a tool, a scenario they wouldn’t normally encounter in nature. Using a plastic bee on the end of a stick, biologist Olli J. Loukola showed bees how to move a tiny ball into the center of a platform to unlock a sugary treat. After five days of training, the bees started moving the ball to the center on their own.

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Bees were trained to move a ball to the center of a platform to unlock a sugary treat.

Loukola tried various training methods, including using a “ghost bee”—a magnet under the platform that would move the ball to the center and each proved successful. Bees that weren’t trained did not figure out how to get the treat. Then, he watched to see if the trained bees would show other untrained bees how to get the sugar water, which they did.

Yet, the bees were not just blindly imitating what they saw other insects do. When put in new kinds of situations, the trained bees adapted their behavior. Here’s Annalee Newitz reporting for Ars Technica:

When offered a choice between three balls, the bees always chose to move the one that was closest to the center—even though they’d been trained in a situation where the two closest balls were glued down, and only the farthest ball could be moved. They also chose to use black balls, despite being trained on yellow ones. “The bees did not simply copy the behavior of the demonstrator but rather improved on the observed behavior by using a more optimal route,” Loukola and his colleagues wrote in a recent paper in Science.

This isn’t the first time the fuzzy critters have been put to the test. Previous experiments have shown they can count, tell each other where food is by using “waggle dances”, and pull strings to get access to food.

Learn more about the "waggle dance."

However, Loukola’s new tool test showed bees are not only good at using tools, they can also improvise to use them more effectively.

Watch the tool-using bees in action.