Bee brains aint pea-brains


When it comes to complex matters such as cognitive flexibility, a new study shows that bumblebees are smarter than we think.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vasily MenshovThere are plenty of ways to show cognitive complexity within the mind of a living thing. One, according to expert researchers like Olli J. Loukola, Clint J. Perry, Louie Coscos and Lars Chittka  of the Department of Biological and Experimental Psychology, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London in London, England, is the ability to manipulate objects with a specific goal in mind. This sounds simple-you're probably reaching for your coffee right now as you read this-but this is more complex than it may sound, and has slowly moved from being something ascribed only to humans to primates and, eventually, birds too.

But with new research, these researchers have found that this can be attributed to bees as well.



You see, bumblebees were trained to see that a ball could be used to produce a reward. When given the chance, the bees would spontaneously roll the ball to the “goal” to receive their reward. Pretty cool, right?

But wait, it gets cooler.

Bumblebees observed demonstrations of moving the object, a small ball, from one location to another “goal” location. But the bees that observed demonstrations from a live demonstrator (as in, another bee or something that physically looked like a bee) rather than a “ghost” demonstration (like a ball moved via magnet) learned the task more efficiently.

Even cooler still is the fact that, rather than do the exact same thing as their demonstrators, observing bees solved the task of moving the ball more efficiently by using balls closer to the target-even if it didn't look like the ball previously used.

OK, yes, cool. Why does it matter?

The published research says it best. “Such unprecedented cognitive flexibility hints that entirely novel behaviors could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities, should relevant ecological pressures arise.” In other words, though bees have sesame-seed-sized brains, they have cognitive abilities that could potentially save their entire species. 

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