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Intelligence test shows bees can learn to solve tasks from other bees

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

Loukola invented six-legged sort-of soccer (or football for bees in London) in which a Bombus terrestris rolls a yellow ball about the size of its own body down a trackway to a central goal, where researchers dispense sugary rewards. Nearly 80% of the bees learnt exceptionally well through demonstration, whereas the rest were given a chance to watch previously trained bees perform the task and this helped them to emerge as the most effective learners.

The design of this experiment also allowed us to ask a novel question in social learning experiments: when learning from others, will bees simply copy what they see or can they improve upon it? Bees sometimes have to pull parts of flowers to access nectar, so this isn't a hard concept to learn. The 10 bumble bees that watched a sister perform the task were the most successful, the scientists report today in Science.

The scientists were surprised to find out that bees could watch and learn behaviour from other bees.

Bumblebees in a lab recently channeled their inner Lionel Messi by learning to move a tiny ball across a platform and into a target "goal".

Bumblebees new to this insect premiership can be taught the trick using a demonstrator bee that already knows how to get the reward.

"They don't just blindly copy the demonstrator; they can improve on what they learned", says Loukola. This suggests the observer bees picked up something important from their fellow bees that helped them learn this unnatural task.

"These bees solved the problem more effectively", and showed that they could "generalize the solution to new situations", says Anne Leonard, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Nevada in Reno, who was not involved in the study.

Watching these sessions, the test bees were also presented with three balls rolling freely, and instead of mimicking the previous bees' actions through moving the farthest ball, they chose the easier way, moving the closest ball. Another method was a "ghost demonstration", in which researchers moved the ball to the proper location using a magnet.

The study hints that bees can use this problem-solving skill to deal with changes to their environment, including a change of food sources. Still, Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, admits that pushing a ball is pretty far removed from most known instinctive behaviors for bees.

In order to further test their new hypotheses, the scientists altered parts of the platform, changing the color of the balls, adding more than one to the course and at varying distances from the circle. He says that people tend to look for simple explanations when small-brained animals do something, but consider the same thing a complex phenomenon when it's done by vertebrates.

They're super smart, they make honey, and they're responsible for helping keep the human race alive through cross-pollination of crops.

Bees learned best when they were taught by other bees.