Chimpanzees, crows, orangutans, elephants, dolphins, otters, gorillas, octopuses, macaques and rodents are all tool-using animals. Well, now we can add bees to that list. After a series of recent experiments, researchers found that bees can be taught to use tools even though they don’t have to use them in the wild.
Biologist Olli J. Loukola from Queen Mary University of London set out to explore bee intelligence. Previous studies by other researchers already proved that bees could count to four. Other scientists discovered that bees communicate using "waggle dances" in order to inform their bee friends about the location of food.
Bees also have also been taught to pull strings in order to get their food. They were even able to pass along the information that they learned to the rest of their colony. Despite their tiny little brains, we have discovered over the years that these bees be smart.
Loukola’s goal was to find out if bees could use tools effectively. (You know, just incase you ever need a picture hung and there isn’t a handyman around.) He wanted to test bee intelligence and put them in a scenario that they would never experience out in nature and see if they could learn to use tools.
The question was this: could he teach bees to play "soccer"? Was it possible for him to teach the bees to move a ball into the center of a platform in order for them to win a treat? Any bees in the mood for some sugar water?
The first step was to show them what he was looking for them to do. In order to demonstrate, Loukola took a stick with a fake plastic bee at the end. With the help of the fake bee, he pushed the ball into the center of the platform. Then he “rewarded” the fake bee with some sweet, delicious sugar water.
He repeated this action and trained those little buzzers for five days. After the five days, the bees started to drag the ball into the center of the platform on their own. Then those bees began to show the other bees how to get their own sweet sugary award.
They also tried using what they called a “ghost bee." The “ghost bee” was a magnet that was under the platform that was also able to move the ball to the center. Some bees were able to learn from the “ghost bee," but they found that the demonstration from the plastic bee and the other real bees were more effective.
The bees who were not trained were not able to figure out how to get the reward. (Well, maybe if you worked a little harder bees!) So here’s another question: were the bees actually understanding how to get their reward or were they just learning how to imitate the bees who knew what to do? This question needed some further investigating.
In order to find out if the bees were actually comprehending what was happening and not just playing copycat, Loukola decided to switch things up a bit. This time around, when the bees were offered a choice of three balls, the bees always chose the ball that was already closest to the center. When they trained before, the two that were closest to the center were glued down.
"The bees did not simply copy the behavior of the demonstrator but rather improved on the observed behavior by using a more optimal route," Loukola and his colleagues wrote in a recent paper in Science. To make it even more confusing, the scientists also used black balls, when the bees were originally trained with yellow ones. They were still able to effectively play the game and get their reward.
We have already discovered that bees are intelligent creatures, and this experiment proves this even more. It shows that they are adaptable and flexible. While they don’t have to use tools while finding their food out in their natural habitat, this proves that they could if they had to.
“Knowing some of the things bees are capable of might also inspire humans to do a bit more to aid their survival," says Clint Perry, another biologist at Queen Mary University of London. “We often put ourselves atop a hierarchy, where we're smart and we have large brains, and anything far removed from us physically or morphologically, especially animals with small brains, must be not smart,” he says. “Understanding that bees and different insects have more complex cognitive abilities can allow us to appreciate them more. And it might help our efforts to manage living with them a little better.”