Bees' Brains Allow Them to Roll Balls for Food - Proving Intelligence

A bumble bee hard at work spinning a ball toward its goal

The first method demonstrated the "game" with a previously-trained bee, or with a plastic model of a bee controlled by the researchers.

One by one, bumblebees walked onto the platform, explored a bit, and then slurped up the sugar water in the middle.

The bees quickly figured out a better way to move the ball, too.

Then, the researchers moved the ball to the edge of the platform. Next, they were trained to move the ball to a specific location.

The bees that had a fellow insect show them the way were more efficient and successful than the other two groups, the scientists reported.

Every single bee that was able to view another bee move the ball was able to successfully figure out the solution, whereas about 80 percent of the bees who viewed the "ghost demonstration" were able to beat the game.

"They don't just blindly copy the demonstrator; they can improve on what they learned", Loukola said.

"Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioural flexibility and only simple learning abilities", biologist Lars Chittka said in a news release.

In fact, he says, the same mechanisms may be at play in apparently complex behaviours of both insects and invertebrate - and tool use may not require as much brainpower as we thought. Then he might be able to study whether bumblebees could share a ball. But not only did they imitate the behaviour, they built on it to improve the technique.

Instead, the bee-keeper is more likely to seize on the path of least resistance because it's far more hard to replace all of the bees when they could just kill the queen to keep the others happy. "So, it's an open question. Is this an extension of the abilities they have to open up flowers?" says Seeley.

"It may be that bumblebees, along with many other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to solve such complex tasks, but will only do so if environmental pressures are applied to necessitate such behaviors", Loukola added.

Research is showing more and more that animals - including tiny insects with 100,000 times fewer neurons than a human - can learn new skills quickly if their brains are wired right.

As with last week's experiment, such passing of the buck would become more refined to the point where other species like wasps - or journalists in the case of real footballers - got to hear about the bees' unhappiness with their queen as, in public, the bees continue to pledge their full support and loyalty.

The major factors contributing to their struggles are not more complex flowers, but loss of wildflowers due to urban development and agricultural expansion, pesticides and climate change, among other things. "This is of course wonderful for small-brained insects - even for us, it's hard to improve on something when we are copying others".

They chose to challenge the bees with something they would not have encountered before, namely a simplified version of "The Beautiful Game".

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