In a study that displays the insects’ cognitive flexibility, bees moved a ball to a small hole in the center of a circular platform in order to receive a sugary reward. An author of the study concluded that the behavior fulfills the criteria for being defined as tool use, which is typically only observed in particularly intelligent animals, such as primates and crows.
Bumblebees have learned to golf—pushing a ball into a hole to get a reward, stretching what was thought possible for small-brained creatures, the New Scientist reported.
Plenty of previous studies have shown that bees are no bumbling fools, but these have generally involved activities that are somewhat similar to their natural foraging behavior. For example, bees were able to learn to pull a string to reach an artificial flower containing sugar solution. Bees sometimes have to pull parts of flowers to access nectar, so this isn’t too alien to them, the New Scientist reported.
While these tasks might seem complex, they don’t really show a deeper level of learning, said Olli Loukola at Queen Mary University of London, an author of that study. Loukola and his team decided the next challenge was whether bees could learn to move an object that was not attached to the reward, the New Scientist reported.
They built a circular platform with a small hole in the center filled with sugar solution, into which bees had to move a ball to get a reward. A researcher showed them how to do this by using a plastic bee on a stick to push the ball, the New Scientist reported.
The researchers then took three groups of other bees and trained them in different ways. One group observed a previously trained bee solving the task; another was shown the ball moving into the hole, pulled by a hidden magnet; and a third group was given no demonstration, but was shown the ball already in the hole containing the reward, the New Scientist reported.
The bees then did the task themselves. Those that had watched other bees do it were most successful and took less time than those in the other groups to solve the task. Bees given the magnetic demonstration were also more successful than those not given one, the New Scientist reported.
When the bees were trained with three balls placed at different distances from the hole, with the two closest ones glued down, most of the successful bees that then did the task still moved the ball that was closest to the hole. This showed that they were able to make generalizations to solve the task more easily, rather than copying exactly what they had seen, the New Scientist reported.
“They don’t just blindly copy the demonstrator; they can improve on what they learned,” said Loukola. He thinks this cognitive flexibility could help the bees forage successfully in changing natural environments. “This ability to copy others and improve upon what they observe, I think that’s really important.”
Loukola also said the behavior fulfills the criteria for being defined as tool use, which is normally thought of as the preserve of only a few particularly intelligent animals, such as primates and crows, the New Scientist reported.
Eirik Søvik at Volda University College in Norway agreed, saying 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. In fact, he said, the same mechanisms may be at play in apparently complex behaviors of both insects and invertebrate—and tool use may not require as much brainpower as we thought, the New Scientist reported.
“If you apply the same level of scrutiny to vertebrate experiments as to those done with insects, you quickly find that although something might at first appear complex, the same simple mechanisms we find in insects also are at play in vertebrates,” Søvik said.
Bees’ cognitive abilities are of interest to artificial intelligence researchers, some of whom build computer models of insects’ brains to help learn how nature creates complex behavior. Behavioral studies of insects are increasingly showing that you can do a lot with very limited hardware, the New Scientist reported.
“The old-fashioned view is if an animal has a small brain, it’s not intelligent or smart,” said Loukola. “Our study shows it’s not true that small brains are not capable of this kind of cognitive flexibility.”
The main limitation for research on insect cognition is human creativity, Søvik said.
“We just have not been very good at designing experiments that allow us to probe insect cognition very well,” he said. “That’s probably because it is so incredibly difficult to imagine how bees experience the world, and if you want to give them tasks they can succeed at, that is key. I think the authors here really succeed at taking the bees’ view of the world.”