The test bees achieved their goal almost every time, meaning they likely picked up on visual and social cues during the demonstration. If a bee went up to the ball, it would find that it could access a reward, sugar water. And most of the newcomers even improved on the goal-sinking by taking a shortcut demo-bees hadn't used, says behavioral ecologist Olli Loukola at Queen Mary University of London.
The researchers required a group of Bombus terrestrisbumblebees to move a wooden ball smack in the center of a platform for some reward food.
The scientists demonstrated the ball-handling technique to certain bumblebees by using a plastic bee attached to a transparent rod. When offered a choice between three balls, the bees always chose to move the one that was closest to the center-even though they'd been trained in a situation where the two closest balls were glued down, and only the farthest ball could be moved. But all ten bees observing another bee move the ball to the centre solved the task much quicker and at a higher success rate than either of the other groups. The bees were able to show not only imitation of the initial demonstration but eventually creative strategy when they were given more hard "holes".
The scientists were surprised to find out that bees could watch and learn behaviour from other bees.
In order to further test their new hypotheses, the scientists altered parts of the platform, changing the color of the balls, adding more than one to the course and at varying distances from the circle. "They improved on the strategy that they saw", study co-author Clint Perry told NPR. This suggests that bees, which are important crop pollinators, could in time adapt to new food sources if their environment changed.
Bees may have been in other nests in the past where similar events have taken place and the cross-pollination means certain bees will have already learned the most-efficient method of getting their way which they could pass on to create a chasm in the nest.
Eirik Søvik at Volda University College in Norway agrees.
But they weren't in training for the insect World Cup; scientists were testing the bees' learning capabilities, by training them to perform tasks unlike any that a bee would normally confront in its natural habitat. Behavioural studies of insects are increasingly showing that you can do a lot with very limited hardware. "Our study shows it's not true that small brains are not capable of this kind of cognitive flexibility".
Søvik thinks the main limitation for research on insect cognition is human creativity.
"We often put ourselves atop a hierarchy, where we're smart and we have large brains, and anything far removed from us physically or morphologically, especially animals with small brains, must be not smart", Perry told the Smithsonian. "And it might help our efforts to manage living with them a little better".
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