Bees awe scientists with by displaying learning and teaching skills

A new study shows how bees can be trained to pull strings and then teach others how to do it. Scientists say understanding how behavior spreads could help explain the evolutionary roots of human culture.

Jens Meyer/AP/File
A bumble-bee lands on a flower in Erfurt, Germany. A new study says bees can be trained to learn skills and then teach those skills to other bees.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.