Bumblebees Willing To Learn If There's A Sweet Treat Involved
March 19, 2014

Complex Social Learning In Bumblebees Demonstrated

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A pair of new studies from the University of Guelph reveals that bumblebees might have tiny brains, but they are capable of remarkable feats, especially when offered a tasty reward. The researchers, Prof. Peter Kevan, of the School of Environmental Sciences, and PhD student Hamida Mirwan are studying bees’ ability to learn by themselves and from each other.

The scientists found that bees are capable of learning to solve increasingly complex problems in the first study, published in the journal Animal Cognition. The bees were presented with a series of artificial flowers that required escalating challenges. These challenges included moving objects aside or upwards in order to gain a sugar syrup reward.

Inexperienced bees encountering the most complex flowers first were unable to access the treat. This frustration led them to stop trying. If the bees were allowed to progress through the flowers in order of increasing complexity, they were able to navigate the most difficult ones.

“Bees with experience are able to solve new problems that they encounter, while bees with no experience just give up,” said Mirwan.

This study is considered an example of scaffold learning, which is a concept normally reserved for human psychology. In scaffold learning, learners move through increasingly complex steps.

The second study focused on learning through communication, called social learning. The findings, published in Psyche, were obtained by observing the bees watching and communicating with each other.

To facilitate the experiment, Mirwan created artificial flowers that required the bees to walk on the underside of a disk to get a sugar syrup reward. These bees were allowed to forage on the artificial flowers for several days until they became accustomed to feeding from them.

Inexperienced bees were then confined in a mesh container near the artificial flowers where they could observe the more experienced bees. When the new set of bees were allowed to forage, they took just 70 seconds to reach the treat.

A group of bees reserved to be a control were not allowed to observe the experienced bees. They were unable to reach the syrup.

“Social learning in animals usually involves one individual observing and imitating another, although other kinds of communication can also be involved,” said Mirwan.

“They could try for up to 30 minutes, but most gave up before then.”

To test the social learning hypothesis further, Mirwan placed inexperienced bees in a hive with experienced bees. When the inexperienced bees were allowed to forage on the artificial flowers, they were able to reach the treat in 3.5 minutes.

Observation and imitation are at the heart of social learning, according to behavioral scientists. Social insects such as bees, however, can also transmit information through touch, vibration and smell.

The communication method that bees use is still a mystery, according to the researchers.

“We can’t quite explain how bees that had never even seen an artificial flower were able to become adept so quickly at foraging on them, but clearly some in-hive communication took place,” said Kevan.

“It suggests that social learning in bumblebees is even more complex than we first expected.”