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Bumblebees Are Tiny Teachers

The fuzzy, buzzy creatures are capable of more than you might think

Could your next teacher be a bumblebee? (Tiago Cabral - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

How smart are bumblebees? Their fuzzy, buggy bodies and their copycat ways don't exactly scream intellect. But don't be so fast to put down bees' brains. As Reuters reports, a new study suggests that bumblebees can both learn and teach, which could one day help humans understand more about themselves.

In a study published in the journal PLOS Biology, British researchers put bumblebees’ social learning skills—their ability to spread behaviors to other bees—to the test. Since a bee hive is the ultimate social unit, researchers thought it was worth studying the ways in which they use simple tasks to create complex systems.

The researchers trained bees to pull strings attached to artificial, flower-like discs with their tiny limbs. The faux flowers contained food appealing to bees, and the team slowly taught 23 of a group of 40 to associate pulling on the string with a yummy reward. Then, a group of trained “demonstrator” bees were sent into an arena filled with others who had never seen the task performed. When the untrained bees observed the trainers, 60 percent learned to perform the task for themselves. In contrast, a group of bees with no trainers couldn’t figure out how to get to the food—of 110 naïve bees, only two managed to figure it out.

The team next tested if bees were able to use cultural transmission—the passing on of information through social channels—to pull the strings. They added a single trained bee to three colonies of untrained bees and watched how bees performed when they worked in pairs. About 50 percent of each colony figured out how to pull the string when they were seeded with a savvy bee. And even when the trainers died, the ability to pull on the strings continued to spread throughout the colonies.

The experiment challenges the notion that animals need big brains to learn socially and culturally. In the past, scientists have focused mainly on primates and birds to study social and cultural transmission, but it turns out that bees use similar mechanisms—albeit much less complicated—to spread information.

This finding could have big implications for the study of human evolution, which often focuses on larger-brained creatures. “More sophisticated forms of social learning and cognitive mechanisms specific to human culture may well have evolved from simpler forms of learning and cognition,” the researchers write.

That’s right: Bees could teach humans more about themselves. And given recent revelations that the buzzy little beasts may even have emotions, the idea that bees could teach not just other bees, but humans, doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Bee brains may be small, but perhaps it’s time to afford them a little more respect.

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