HomeScience and ResearchAnimal StudiesBumblebees Are as Clever as Humans, New Study Finds

Bumblebees Are as Clever as Humans, New Study Finds

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Do You Know What’s So Special about Bumblebees? New Study Reveals Depth of Bumblebees’ Intelligence – ‘This is an Extremely Difficult Task For Bees’

A groundbreaking revelation has emerged: bumblebees exhibit an unprecedented level of cognitive sophistication, a finding that has never before been observed.

According to a new study that was published in Nature, these fuzzy pollinators may pick up difficult, multi-step skills via social contact, even if they are unable to do it on their own.

This calls into question the long-held notion that humans are the only animals capable of such sophisticated social learning, and it even suggests that these insects may contain essential components of cumulative civilization.

Under the direction of Professor Lars Chittka and Dr. Alice Bridges, the study team created a two-step puzzle box where bumblebees had to complete two different tasks to get a delicious reward at the end.

It took a lot of work to teach bees to do this, so along the way, more rewards had to be added to encourage them. Eventually, this short-term incentive was removed, forcing the bees to open the whole box to get their gift. Surprisingly, bees who were allowed to see a trained “demonstrator” bee quickly learned the entire sequence—even the initial step—while still receiving a reward at the end of the task, but individual bees found it difficult to complete the problem when they started from scratch.

This research shows that bumblebees have a degree of social learning that was previously believed to be exclusive to humans.

They may exchange and learn behaviors that are above their own cognitive capacity, which is considered to support the wide, complex structure of human culture and was previously thought to be unique to humans.

“This is an extremely difficult task for bees,” Dr Bridges emphasizes.

“They had to learn two steps to get the reward, with the first behavior in the sequence being unrewarded. We initially needed to train demonstrator bees with a temporary reward included there, highlighting the complexity. Yet, other bees learned the whole sequence from the social observation of these trained bees, even without ever experiencing the first step’s reward. But when we let other bees attempt to open the box without a trained bee to demonstrate the solution, they didn’t manage to open any at all.” 

This study offers fascinating new insights on the development of cumulative culture in the animal realm, going beyond individual learning. The term “cumulative culture” describes how information and abilities are gradually passed down through the generations, enabling the development of more sophisticated behaviors. The fact that bees can pick up such a difficult job from a demonstration points to a possible route for innovation and cultural transmission that goes beyond individual learning capacities.

“This challenges the traditional view that only humans can socially learn complex behavior beyond individual learning,” remarks Professor Chittka.

“It raises the fascinating possibility that many of the most remarkable accomplishments of the social insects, like the nesting architectures of bees and wasps or the agricultural habits of aphid- and fungus-farming ants, may have initially spread by copying of clever innovators before they eventually became part of the species-specific behavior repertoires.” 

This ground-breaking study provides fresh insights into the development of social learning and animal intelligence. It casts doubt on long-held beliefs and opens the door to further research into the cognitive marvels concealed in the world of insects. It even raises the intriguing prospect of cumulative civilization amongst apparently basic organisms.

Source: 10.1038/s41586-024-07126-4

Image Credit: iStock

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