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Bees can learn to pull strings for food

Learning to pull strings for food is often used to test the intelligence of apes and birds. Turns out, bees can learn it too, and pass the skill on to other bees.

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Bumblebees can learn to pull strings to get a sugar water reward, and pass on the ability to a colony, according to a study published in the journal PLOS Biology on October 4, 2016.

Pulling strings or pushing levers to obtain food is an experiment that researchers often use to test the intelligence of apes and birds, but this is the first time this ability has been discovered in an insect.

According to the research, led by the U.K.’s Queen Mary University, watching the behavior helps other bees learn to do it too, and the new skill continues to spread through a colony even after the original string-puller bee is gone.

A blue artificial flower contains sucrose solution in a well in the centre. The flower is placed under a clear Plexiglas table, so the bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) can see the flower, but cannot reach the well with the reward, since the gap between the Plexiglas table and the floor is too small. Hence the bumblebee's only option is to pull the string, until the central well is openly accessible. Here the bumblebee has placed its left front foot on the string to pull it. Image via Sylvain Alem

A blue artificial flower contains sucrose solution in a well in the center. The flower is placed under a clear Plexiglas table, so the bumblebee can see the flower, but can’t reach the well with the reward, since the gap between the Plexiglas table and the floor is too small. The bumblebee’s only option is to pull the string, until the central well is openly accessible. Here the bumblebee has placed its left front foot on the string to pull it. Image via Sylvain Alem

For the experiment, the team trained bees to get sugar water by pulling a string attached to a fake blue flower placed under a small clear Plexiglas table. They then had 25 untrained bees observe the action and found that 60 percent of this group eventually learned how to perform the task.

Finally, trained bees were placed in colonies and researchers observed that the skill was quickly passed on among members, and that new string-pullers often became teachers to others in the colony.

Based on the results, researchers suggest that even relatively simple animals have the basic tools needed what they call “the cultural spread of unusual skills.” Dr. Sylvain Alem is lead author of the study. In a statement, Alem said that the study suggests that

…cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans.

Professor Lars Chittka, project supervisor, said:

We are ultimately interested in finding out what might be possible neural solutions to underpin such refined skills in bees. How can they do it with such small brains, and how can their miniature nervous systems manage such a diversity of behaviours and cognitive tasks?

Image via trasroid/Flickr

Image via trasroid/Flickr

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Bottom line: Bumblebees can learn to pull strings to get a sugar water reward, and pass on the ability to a colony, according to a study published in the journal PLOS Biology on October 4, 2016.

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Eleanor Imster

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