In his experiment, Queen Mary University of London researcher Sylvian Alem attached a fake flower sprinkled with sugar water to the end of a string, placed it under a transparent sheet of glass and then put a group of bumblebees to a test.
If he trained them to pull the string to get the sugar water, would they be able to learn it – and spread the skill to their colony?
When Lars Chittka, a professor at the university, saw the experiment, he was surprised.
"What I like about the work," Dr. Chittka said in a press release, "in addition to the experimental and intellectual challenges and insights, is the sheer absurdity of seeing bees solving a string-pulling puzzle. When lead author Sylvain Alem first showed me a bee successfully pulling on the string, I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. And even now, looking at the videos still makes me laugh."
Dr. Alem and Chittka are authors of a study published in PLOS Biology on Tuesday that aims to explore social learning and cultural transmission in insects. They wanted to find out: With promise of a reward, could animals learn a skill unnatural to their lifestyles and pass it on to their peers?
The implications of the study could be transposed to the history of human evolution, shedding light onto how humans may have developed sophisticated forms of learning processes and cognitive skills throughout generations, tracing back to early tool-using hominids.
In the past, scientists have dismissed the cognizance of insects based on the size of their brains, but the results of this study may suggest that a bee has problem-solving capabilities.
"How much brainpower is actually required for any one task – how many neurons, how many sequential and parallel neural processing stages?" Chittka asked. "In that view, the single task that actually requires a big brain has not been discovered yet, and indeed there is more and more evidence, both from experiments on small-brained insects and computational neuroscience, that small circuits can deal with exceptionally complex challenges."
While learning how to pull a string and teaching the skill may seem like a minuscule milestone, it is not a technique commonly observed in the daily behavior of many animals. For a bee to be able to do so takes training. The researchers trained them step by step, gradually increasing the distance between the bee and the flower as it learned that pulling the string would bring the flower closer.
As Alem and Chittka found out, once a bee learned the technique, the other bees could easily pick up the skills from just observing the "innovator" bee. All it took was observation and some trial-and-error attempts by the observer bees. Even after the first bee died, the skills still continued to spread.
Social learning in animals is not novel. Previous experiments have shown primates learning how to fish for termites with sticks by observing their mothers.
The study finds that when there are appropriate conditions present, such as rewards for behaviors – in the bees' case, the sugar water – culture or advantageous information can be learned and transmitted through simple forms of learning. The bees didn't understand the task, as the researchers found. They were only observing where the "innovator" bee stood, and what the string could do.
If the results are framed in the evolution of humans from other hominids, it might be that like the bees, human ancestors found rewards through their use of tools, and from there, transmitted the culture, developed new skills, led to "further evolutionary fine-tuning" that lends them the sophisticated cognitive mechanisms that modern humans now have.