Bees may have tiny brains, but they are surprisingly intelligent. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have conducted an experiment showing that bees can learn from their environment to gain a reward, and then teach other bees to do the same. But that’s not all they can do.
“I think the most important result in our case was that bumblebees can not just copy others but they can improve upon what they are learning,” said Olli Loukola, the first author on the study published Thursday in Science. “This is of course amazing for small-brained insects — even for us, it’s difficult to improve on something when we are copying others.”
In the experiment, the bees had to move a yellow ball into the center of a platform after the scientists demonstrated to the bees how to do it. Some bugs saw the ball move as though on its own, with researchers secretly moving it from below with a magnet. For other bees, the scientists moved the ball with a plastic bee on a stick. When the ball reached the center, the scientists added sugar water to reward the subjects.
Once the bees learned that the rewards arrived when the ball was situated in the right place, the bugs began to move the balls by themselves in subsequent trials.
The team then placed the trained bees on a platform with naïve bees. After observing the trained bees once, the untrained ones started to carry out the task, too. And not only did they copy the behavior, but the new recruits also improved on the action: They chose balls closer to themselves, even if the demonstrator bee picked a ball that was farther away.
“These are, high, high, highly intelligent creatures. They use their neurons in their brain as efficiently as any other animal on the globe,” said conservation biologist Reese Halter, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There’s little under a million neurons in a bee brain, which is approximately the number of neurons in one human retina.”
Halter explained that bees communicate through head-butting, jostling each other and dancing.
Behavioral ecologist Lars Chittka, who runs the lab where the research took place, authored a study in 2009 on the brain networks of bees, called “Are Bigger Brains Better?” The paper concluded that even small brains can be highly complex. Researchers in Chittka’s lab have also shown that bees are smart enough to pull artificial flowers out of narrow slots by strings in order to access the sugar in them.
Loukola explains that, in the past, the scientific community has sometimes assumed that the smaller the brain, the less intelligent the species. But, he said, “This study is the nail in the coffin that that idea is old-fashioned.”
Other research supports the notion of advanced bee intelligence. A 2014 study in the journal Animal Cognition found that bees could learn increasingly difficult tasks to access sugar. For example, the bees can learn to slide or lift caps, then subsequently push balls of escalating weight to access the reward. When the researchers put the bees who knew how to solve the puzzle in a hive with naïve bees, they somehow went on to communicate the solution to their unlearned kinfolk.