Bumblebees learn their foraging dance from their fellow insects

"The fact that bees can watch and learn, and then make a habit of that behavior, adds to the ever-growing body of evidence that they are far smarter creatures than a lot of people give them credit for,” said a researcher.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Bumblebees may be social creatures after all.jpg
Bumblebees may be social creatures after all.


New research, led by Queen Mary University of London, is indicating that bumblebees watch and learn from each other, operating in a social setting, according to a press release published on Tuesday. More specifically they mimic each other's foraging dance.

"Bumblebees -- and, indeed, invertebrates in general -- aren't known to show culture-like phenomena in the wild. However, in our experiments, we saw the spread and maintenance of a behavioral "trend" in groups of bumblebees -- similar to what has been seen in primates and birds,” said Dr Alice Bridges, the lead author from Queen Mary University of London.

“The behavioral repertoires of social insects like these bumblebees are some of the most intricate on the planet, yet most of this is still thought to be instinctive. Our research suggests that social learning may have had a greater influence on the evolution of this behavior than previously imagined."

The researchers used a variety of experiments to establish their final results that consisted of boxes the insects had to open to get to a 50 percent sucrose solution reward. The experiments weren’t entirely new:similar results from similar experiments have been found in species such as primates and birds.

This suggests that they, like humans, bumblebees are capable of culture and could potentially explain the evolutionary origin of many of the complex behaviors seen among social insects. The possibility lies that what now appears instinctive could have been socially learnt, at least originally.

Making a habit out of behavior

"The fact that bees can watch and learn, and then make a habit of that behavior, adds to the ever-growing body of evidence that they are far smarter creatures than a lot of people give them credit for,”  said professor Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary University of London and author of the book 'The Mind of a Bee.

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In the first experiment, 98.6 percent of box openings were made using the taught method that required the insects to learn from watching their fellow bumblebees. In the second experiment, 97.3 percent of observers used the method they had previously seen in action.

"We tend to overlook the "alien civilizations" formed by bees, ants, and wasps on our planet -- because they are small-bodied and their societies and architectural constructions seem governed by instinct at first glance,” said Chittka.

 “Our research shows, however, that new innovations can spread like social media memes through insect colonies, indicating that they can respond to wholly new environmental challenges much faster than by evolutionary changes, which would take many generations to manifest,"concluded Chittka in the press release.

The study was published in PLOS Biology.

Study abstract:

The astonishing behavioural repertoires of social insects have been thought largely innate, but these insects have repeatedly demonstrated remarkable capacities for both individual and social learning. Using the bumblebee Bombus terrestris as a model, we developed a two-option puzzle box task and used open diffusion paradigms to observe the transmission of novel, nonnatural foraging behaviours through populations. Box-opening behaviour spread through colonies seeded with a demonstrator trained to perform 1 of the 2 possible behavioural variants, and the observers acquired the demonstrated variant. This preference persisted among observers even when the alternative technique was discovered. In control diffusion experiments that lacked a demonstrator, some bees spontaneously opened the puzzle boxes but were significantly less proficient than those that learned in the presence of a demonstrator. This suggested that social learning was crucial to proper acquisition of box opening. Additional open diffusion experiments where 2 behavioural variants were initially present in similar proportions ended with a single variant becoming dominant, due to stochastic processes. We discuss whether these results, which replicate those found in primates and birds, might indicate a capacity for culture in bumblebees.

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