- By Emily McGarvey
- BBC news
Bumble bees learn to solve puzzles by watching their more experienced peers, scientists in the UK have found.
Experts from Queen Mary University of London trained a set of bees to open a puzzle box containing a sugar reward.
These bees then passed on the knowledge to others in their colonies, the study found.
The researchers discovered that “social learning” may have had a greater influence on bumble bee behavior than previously thought.
To conduct the study, the researchers created a puzzle box that could be opened by twisting a lid to access a sugar solution.
The lid could be turned clockwise by pressing a red tab, while pushing a blue tab could turn it counter-clockwise.
The researchers trained “demonstrator” bees to use one of these methods to open the lid while the “observer” bees watched.
When the observer bees tackled the puzzle, the researchers found that they chose the same method they had seen 98% of the time, even after discovering the alternative approach.
The study also found that bees with a demonstrator opened more puzzle boxes than control bees.
This suggests that the bees learned the behavior socially rather than discovering the solution themselves, the researchers said.
Dr. Alice Bridges, who led the study, said bumble bees were not known to show “culture-like phenomena” in the wild.
“However, in our experiments we saw the spread and maintenance of a behavioral ‘trend’ in groups of bumblebees – similar to what is seen in primates and birds,” she said.
She said the behavior of social insects like these bumblebees was “some of the most intricate on the planet”.
In other experiments, where both “blue” and “red” demonstrator bees were released into the same groups of bees, the observer bees initially learned to use both methods, but eventually developed a preference for one solution, which then dominated the colony.
This shows how a behavioral trend can occur in the bee population, according to the study.
In this case, researchers said, any change in foraging behavior may be due to experienced bees withdrawing from foraging and new learners emerging, rather than the bees changing their preferences.