Efficient Bees Use Logic And Observation To Find Nectar
April 5, 2013

Copycat Bees Use Logic To Find Nectar

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Why do bees copy each other when looking for nectar?  The answer is remarkably simple, according to a new study from Queen Mary, University of London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Bees have tiny brains. But even with this handicap, they are smart enough to pick out the most attractive flowers by watching other bees and learning from their behavior. The use of simple logic allows them to watch for the most popular flower colors and conclude that other flowers of the same color must also contain lots of energy-rich nectar.

"Learning where to find nectar by watching others seems fantastically complex for a tiny bee, but it's something that almost any animal could do, in the right circumstances," says Dr Elli Leadbeater from ZSL's Institute for Zoology. The results of this study were published in a recent issue of Current Biology.

In the search for nectar to feed the queen's brood, most worker bees visit thousands of flowers every day. Copying the color choices of other bees is a shortcut to success, allowing them to bypass the exhausting process of exploring each flower to see whether it contains hidden rewards.

Wooden laboratory "flight arenas" were stocked with artificial flowers to test this copying behavior. The bees were trained to know that sugar was available on flowers where other foragers were present. The test bees watched through a screen as others chose a particular flower color and ignored another.

When the observing bees were allowed to go foraging for on their own, they copied the flower choices of the earlier bees. Those that had not observed and learned to equate other bees´ behavior with nectar discovery — so-called "naïve foragers" — did not copy the other bees' nectar-hunting behavior.

"Our study shows how bees use past associations to make decisions about when to copy others, but almost all other animals, including humans, are also capable of forming associations. For example, we might associate Easter with chocolate or injections with fear. This suggests that other species, not just bees, may also use this logical process when learning from others," said Erika Dawson, a PhD student at Queen Mary.

"We suggest that bees are using similar logic to a person, who might get a headache, and the next day, feel very ill. A week later, the headache is back, accompanied by a nasty rash. Even though they do not feel ill this time, when the rash appears again the following week, they start to dread feeling ill again, and think about taking the next day off work," she continued.

The researchers also found that bees evaluate the choices of other bees. In the so-called "flight arenas," test bees did not copy other bees if they found that those bees were visiting flowers with bitter tastes. Instead, they actively avoided those flowers colors. The scientists used quinine — a flavoring used in tonic-water which bees typically dislike — to flavor the bitter flowers.

This copy-cat behavior doesn't seem to apply to toxins, however. As redOrbit reported earlier this week, a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh revealed that bees were able to taste and ignore heavy metal toxins in flowers, but only after they had visited a flower contaminated with the metals. They were not able to learn this behavior from observation alone.