Scientists have trained a bee to pull a string for a reward.
Pulling a string is a popular problem-solving task given to animals, but it’s never been tested on insects – until a team from Queen Mary University in London found that bumblebees can be trained.
Artificial flowers soaked with sugar water were placed under plastic discs, attached to a string.
“Quite quickly”, according to Lars Chittka, the bumblebees were trained to access the sugar water.
Look at him go:
There’s science to be learned here, but entertainment is important too.
“What I like about the work,” said Chittka, “in addition to the experimental and intellectual challenges and insights, is the sheer absurdity of seeing bees solving a string-pulling puzzle.”
“Even now, looking at the videos still makes me laugh.”
But wait, there’s more. The team then put 25 untrained bees in transparent cages where they could watch their string-pulling buddies.
Soon enough, up to 60% of the untrained bees were pulling for their treats – without any guidance from the scientists.
In another experiment, they added one trained bee each to three colonies of untrained bees. Then they pulled out pairs of bees and tested them over 150 string-pulling bouts.
By the end of the bouts, roughly half of all the bees had learnt how to pull the string simply by teaming with the trained bee, or a bee trained by the trained bee.
In some cases the trained bee died a third of the way through the bouts, yet the string-pulling prowess continued to grow through the colony.
Amazing, but it also shows that learning and teaching in culture and society can happen at even the most basic cognitive level.
“How much brainpower is actually required for any one task – how many neurons, how many sequential and parallel neural processing stages?” said Chittka.
“In that view, the single task that actually requires a big brain has not been discovered yet, and indeed there is more and more evidence, both from experiments on small-brained insects and computational neuroscience, that small circuits can deal with exceptionally complex challenges.”
The study was published in PLOS Biology.
Here’s a video of another bumblebee solving a more complicated coiled string task:
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