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Bumblebees may be capable of cultural learning

A recent study led by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has found that bumblebees exhibit a level of cognitive ability far more advanced than previously recognized, showcasing their capacity for complex social learning. 

The experts discovered that bumblebees can master intricate tasks through observation, a trait once thought to be exclusive to humans. This finding suggests that elements of cumulative culture, the layering of knowledge and skills across generations, may also exist among these insects.

Sophisticated puzzle

The study involved a sophisticated two-step puzzle box designed to test the bumblebees’ problem-solving capabilities. 

To access a sugary reward, the bees were required to complete two separate actions in a specific sequence. Initially, the bees were enticed with an additional reward partway through the task, which was later removed, forcing them to open the box entirely on their own to obtain the treat. 

Learning by watching

The most astonishing observation came from the fact that bees watching a “demonstrator” bee could learn the entire sequence without prior experience of the intermediate reward.

The research marks a significant shift in our understanding of social learning, suggesting that bumblebees can acquire and transmit behaviors that surpass their innate cognitive limits. This capability was once believed to be a hallmark of human culture’s complexity and depth.

Challenging task for bumblebees to learn

Lead author Alice Bridges, a PhD student at QMUL, highlighted the task’s challenge, noting the necessity of initially training demonstrator bees with a temporary reward to facilitate learning. 

“This is an extremely difficult task for bees. They had to learn two steps to get the reward, with the first behavior in the sequence being unrewarded. Yet, other bees learned the whole sequence from social observation of these trained bees, even without ever experiencing the first step’s reward,” explained Bridges. 

This contrasts starkly with the bees’ inability to solve the puzzle without a demonstration, underscoring the importance of social learning.

Bumblebee learning hints at cultural transmission 

The implications of this study extend beyond the realm of individual learning, suggesting the potential for cumulative culture among animals. This concept – the gradual build-up of knowledge and practices over time – has traditionally been associated with human societies. 

The bees’ capacity for learning complex tasks from demonstrators hints at mechanisms for cultural transmission and innovation beyond mere individual learning.

“This challenges the traditional view that only humans can socially learn complex behavior beyond individual learning,” said senior author Lars Chittka, a zoologist at QMUL. 

“It raises the fascinating possibility that many of the most remarkable accomplishments of the social insects, like the nesting architectures of bees and wasps or the agricultural habits of aphid- and fungus-farming ants, may have initially spread by copying of clever innovators, before they eventually became part of the species-specific behavior repertoires.”

Evolutionary origins of social learning

This pioneering study – published in the journal Nature – not only expands our understanding of animal intelligence but also invites further exploration into the cognitive abilities of insects

By demonstrating that bumblebees are capable of social learning and potentially participating in the rudiments of cumulative culture, it prompts a reevaluation of long-held assumptions about the mental lives of insects and opens new horizons for research into the evolutionary origins of social learning and culture.


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