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Bumblebees learn new trends by watching others

A new study published in PLoS Biology reveals that bumblebees learn new “trends” by watching other bumblebees, and that these trends can spread throughout a colony. The study, led by researchers at Queen Mary University of London, suggests that social learning plays a significant role in bumblebee behavior, particularly when it comes to foraging.

The researchers conducted multiple experiments which involved training “demonstrator” bees to either push a red tab clockwise or a blue tab counterclockwise to open a puzzle box containing a sucrose solution reward. In one experiment, “observer” bees were able to watch their comrades being trained. When it was the observer bees’ turn to perform, they chose the method they had seen the “demonstrator” bees use.

There was also a control group that didn’t include a demonstrator bee. This group rarely managed to open the puzzle box. While the group with demonstrator bees opened 28 boxes per day, the control group opened only one puzzle box.

In a second experiment, “blue” and “red” demonstrators were released into the same populations of bees. The researchers noticed that the bees overwhelmingly used the red method in the first population. However, in the second population, the blue method became more popular. The experts say this demonstrates how trends can develop.

The study authors believe that these findings open up the possibility that bees, like primates and birds, are capable of social learning and perhaps culture.

“Bumblebees – and, indeed, invertebrates in general – aren’t known to show culture-like phenomena in the wild. However, in our experiments, we saw the spread and maintenance of a behavioral “trend” in groups of bumblebees – similar to what has been seen in primates and birds,” said study lead author Dr. Alice Bridges.

“The fact that bees can watch and learn, and then make a habit of that behavior, adds to the ever-growing body of evidence that they are far smarter creatures than a lot of people give them credit for,” said study co-author Professor Lars Chittka.

“Our research shows, however, that new innovations can spread like social media memes through insect colonies, indicating that they can respond to wholly new environmental challenges much faster than by evolutionary changes, which would take many generations to manifest.”

By Erin Moody, Staff Writer

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