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Study shows humans can teach bees new skills

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 10:38
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British researchers have been able to train bumblebees to tug on strings to get to food and then pass on that training to others within their colony, according to a new study.

Published in the journal PLOS Biology, the new study showed a high degree of intelligence despite the bees’ small brains.

The study team, from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), said the experiments they used are also often used to evaluate the intelligence of apes and birds. The experiments revealed for the first time that some insects can learn the string task and pass skills on through a number generations.

The results add to mounting evidence indicating the capability of “culture spread,” or the ability learn and pass on skills and knowledge, might not be solely the domain of humans. In fact, it might be in most animals, including insects.

“We found that when the appropriate social and ecological conditions are present, culture can be mediated by the use of a combination of simple forms of learning,” study author Sylvain Alem, an evolutionary biologist at QMUL, said in a news release. “Thus, the cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans.”

“Despite the obvious differences between humans and other animals, understanding social learning and culture in animals holds a key to understanding the evolutionary roots of the peculiarities of social learning and culture in humans,” added lead author Clint Perry, a bee behavior expert at QMUL.

To reach their findings, the study team presented bees with three synthetic blue flowers holding food at their middle but placed under a clear screen. The bees, sensing the food underneath the screen, learned to tug the “flowers” out and expose the food by yanking on the string with their legs and feet.

In the beginning, 23 bees out of the test group of 40 could learn the task in a stepwise manner. A different group of bees were given the chance to solve the process spontaneously, without any training, and just two of 110 were successful suggesting it is an uncommon occurrence.

Naïve bees were then permitted to see trained bees tugging the string from a distance and 60 percent of them effectively learned the skill. Lastly, trained bees were put into colonies and scientists witnessed the process spread effectively to a majority of the colony’s employee bees.

“We are ultimately interested in finding out what might be possible neural solutions to underpin such refined skills in bees,” said Lars Chittka, project supervisor. “How can they do it with such small brains, and how can their miniature nervous systems manage such a diversity of behaviors and cognitive tasks?

“We are exploring this through modeling information processing in parts of the insect brain, and we find that often, exceedingly difficult tasks, for example in visual pattern recognition or floral scent learning, can be solved with extremely simple neural circuits. We are still a long way from understanding the required neural circuitry for string-pulling, however.”


Image credit: Thinkstock

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