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Back in February main stream media were amazed at a story that demonstrated the humble bumble bee could play football. Obviously, the bees had not acquired a new fondness of sport but what they had shown was cognitive flexibility under ecological pressure. Loukola et al.’s experiment with bumble bees shows tool use can now be extended to invertebrates, having previously only ascribed to humans, primates, marine animals and birds.
The team from Queen Mary, University of London’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences (QMUL) published their findings in Science and are the first to show this ‘unprecedented behaviour’. The experiment did involve the bumble bees (Bombus spp.) utilising a bee sized yellow football to gain rewards, so the mainstream wasn’t wrong in suggesting the team had trained bees that could play football. The bees were trained to push a yellow ball towards a central platform to release a door that allowed access to a sucrose solution (sugar).
The Bees were trained using three methods; one group watched pretrained bees complete the task, another cohort watched a ‘ghost’ ball being moved using a magnet under the platform and a final ‘control’ group had no demonstration.The group that watched their peers did the best but what was startling was that they improved on their demonstrators. Instead of just copying the demonstrators the ‘bee trained’ group complete the task more efficiently. The demonstrators had been trained to move the furthest yellow ball towards the platform, the bees they trained quickly learnt to move the closest ball to the target to get the reward, regardless of the colour of the ball.
“The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it,” says joint lead author Dr Olli J. Loukola. “This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect.”
The findings would suggest that human prejudices of brain size to body mass ratios mean nothing when it comes to the ability of animals and insects to cognitively adapt to ecological pressures. This may mean that wild bees may still be able to reverse the changes to their population numbers which have been declining for decades.
“Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to limited behavioural flexibility and only simple learning abilities,” says QMUL’s Professor Lars Chittka.
Slowing the decline
Whilst the study gives promising insights into the cognitive adaptability of the bees, it’s very debatable that the current ecological pressures being imposed on bees will be overcome through this adaptability. Bumble bee numbers in the wild had already declined in the in the 70s.
Pesticides, especially insecticides, are often blamed for bee and other pollinator losses. Particular concern has been raised about some neonicotinoid insecticides (especially clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam). These systemic insecticides were used by farmers and gardeners to control a wide range of pests.
Attention has been focused on this group of insecticides because minute quantities of these systemic chemicals get into sap, nectar and pollen of treated plants. In addition, several bee poisoning incidents with these neonicotinoids have occurred abroad as a result of incorrect application by farmers and some research has shown harmful, often sub-lethal effects on the foraging ability of honeybees and the colony size of bumblebees. However, other research showed no clear evidence of harm being caused to bees when the chemicals are applied correctly.
Beyond pesticides habitat change, disease, competition between species and climate change may all be playing a part in the decline. It is plausible to think bees could adapt to one ecological pressure but multiple threats may require Herculean like adaptation.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has a good website describing the threats faced by our bees and what individuals can do to aid them in their struggle.
This study highlights we are only beginning to understand the complexity and ability of life on earth, we may be the supreme species but being ubiquitous does not mean we have unique abilities. Preservation of Bees is not only vital for furthering our scientific knowledge it is vital for our own survival, with pollinators like bees being an integral part of our ecosystem.
The Bees demonstrate an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility. © Copyright Olli Loukola/QMUL
- OLLI J. LOUKOLA, CLINT J. PERRY, LOUIE COSCOS, LARS CHITTKA Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior. Science, 24 FEB 2017 : 833-836
- Paul H Williams The Distribution and Decline of British Bumble Bees (Bombus Latr.) Journal of Apicultural Research,21(4), 236–245. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40618-015-0336-1
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