Teaching Bees to Play Ball Reveals Complex Learning Abilities

Observing how bees use a tool to gain a reward reveals surprising information about how they learn. Iida Loukola

One way scientists test the intelligence of an animal is by giving it a tool and a goal, and observing whether the animal can manipulate the former to achieve the latter. They also like to check to see how big its brain is relative to its body, because small brains sometimes put strictures on an animal's ability to learn and change their behavior. But, y'know, not always.

Bees, for instance, have small brains — minuscule, really. Yet the more we learn about bees, the more it looks like these pollinating wonders are capable of more than their bee-sized brains would suggest. For instance, hives of thousands of bees are capable of making important group decisions by consensus, a feat that we know to be practically impossible for humans. And a new study published in the journal Science shows that bumblebees might be capable of learning entirely new sets of behaviors when faced with ecological pressure to do so.

"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," said co-author Dr. Lars Chittka, from Queen Mary University of London's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, in a press release.

Chittka's research builds on past studies that showed bumblebees could solve puzzles that resembled tasks they might encounter in day-to-day bee life, like figuring out how to access a treat by pulling on some strings. To build on what we know about bees' ability to learn in a familiar setting to get a food reward, the researchers introduced bumblebees to a totally alien task. And so of course, they decided on soccer.

In the experiment, three groups of bees were shown the object of the game by different means: one group of 10 bees was shown how to move a tiny ball into a "goal" by a trained bee, another was shown a demonstration of the ball moving around on the "field," pulled by a magnet underneath the experiment platform, and the third set of bees was shown the ball in the goal with a puddle of sugar water next to it. Bees go crazy for puddles of sugar water, by the way. You can watch a bee at work here:

The bees that learned the game from the trained bee caught on much more readily than the ones that witnessed the weird ghost ball moving, or received no demonstration at all (although some of these bees figured out what they were supposed to do on their own, thank you very much). But even those bees that watched another bee wrangle the ball into the goal didn't do it in exactly the same way as first modeled for them. They invented more efficient ways of getting the job done: Some pulled the ball instead of pushing it, while others moved different colored balls or balls from different parts of the field from the ones they observed in the first demonstration.

"The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it. This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect," co-author Dr. Olli J. Loukola, a behavioral ecologist at Queen Mary University of London, said in the same press release.