Mind-blowing discovery: Bumblebees can learn from each other and spread knowledge throughout the colony!

Bumblebees are smart insects! Do you know that bumblebees can learn to solve puzzles by observing other experienced bees? and this learned behavior can spread throughout the colony. The finding is a study published on March 7th in the journal PLOS Biology by Alice Dorothy Bridges and colleagues at Queen Mary University of London. The study found that bees who learned from others were more skilled at solving the puzzle and preferred the learned solution over alternatives.

Social animals like primates are skilled at learning by watching others, and previous work has shown that individual bees can learn tasks in this way. However, it remained unclear whether these new behaviors would then spread through the colony. To investigate this, researchers tested six colonies of bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) using a puzzle box that could be opened by rotating a lid to access a sugar solution. The bees could rotate the lid either clockwise or anticlockwise by pushing one of two different colored tabs.

The researchers trained bees to use one of these two solutions and then released these ‘demonstrator’ bees into a foraging arena alongside untrained bees and filmed them over a period of six to twelve days. Foraging bees with a demonstrator opened more puzzle boxes than control bees and used the same puzzle solution that the demonstrator had been taught 98% of the time. This suggests that they learned the behavior socially rather than stumbling upon a solution themselves.

Bees feeding from a puzzle box opened by pushing the blue tab
Credit: Alice Bridges (CC-BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

In experiments where multiple demonstrators were each taught a different solution to the puzzle, untrained bees initially learned to use both methods. However, over time they randomly developed a preference for one solution or the other, which then came to dominate in that colony.

This study is the first to document the spread of different behavioral approaches to solving the same problem in bees. The results provide strong evidence that social learning is important for the transmission of new behaviors through bumblebee colonies.

Reference:  PLOS Biologyhttp://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3002019