Can we train bumblebees to score goals?

For a many years, the capacity to manipulate objects with a specific goal in mind was ascribed to humans alone. However, research has shown that this type of behavior is also displayed by primates, marine mammals (dolphins), and birds (crows). Even more surprisingly, a team of scientists recently discovered that invertebrates, specifically bumblebees, also show this capacity. Discover how the bumblebee’s learning abilities have been tested.

The research was led by the department of biological science and experimental psychology at the Queen Mary University of London. It aimed to show that bumblebees could resolve a cognitive task which wasn’t part of their normal routine, such as pulling a string to obtain food. According to Dr. C Perry, co-author of the study, it was about “exploring the cognitive limits of bumblebees by testing whether they could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before.”

Firstly, the bees were pre-trained to recognize the correct location for a ball. They were then trained to move the ball to a hole in the center of the platform, or in other words ‘score a goal,’ to obtain a sugary reward. To learn this technique, four groups of bumblebees were subjected to different protocols. Some of the bumblebees observed a previously trained bee move the ball into the hole; others watched a direct demonstration of the task but this time performed by a lure (a member of the team using a rod with a fake bee on the end); another group watched a ‘ghost,’ where the ball was moved using a magnet beneath the platform; and the last group didn’t have a demonstration, they simply found the ball already in the hole. In all the protocols the researchers provided a reward through the hole when the ball was in the correct position. So, which was the best method of training?

The results showed that direct observation of a real or a false bumblebee performing the task was the most effective. Newly trained bumblebees even showed skills that were superior to those of their ‘model.’ For example, during the initial training there were three balls on the platform, two of which (those closest to the hole) were glued to the platform and couldn’t be moved. As a result, the bees were forced to move the ball that was farthest from the hole. However, once the bees had been trained, they were placed on a new platform where all three balls could be moved. This time, they chose to move the ball that was closest to the hole and required the least effort to move, rather than the ball that they had been trained to move. In another test, the bees completed the same task even though the color of the balls was different.

Consequently, the bumblebees didn’t simply reproduce what they had observed, but demonstrated an impressive cognitive flexibility. According to the authors, the result of this experiment shows an unprecedented capacity for learning in bumblebees. Finally O.J Loukola added that: “It may be that bumblebees, along with many other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to solve such complex tasks, but will only do so if environmental pressures are applied to necessitate such behaviors.”
Source: O.J. Loukola, C.J. Perry, L. Coscos, L. Chittka, “Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior”, in Science vol.335, 24 February 2017.

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