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Ball Rolling Bees Reveal Complex Learning

Summary: Researchers report bumblebees can learn new behaviors when faced with ecological pressure.

Source: Queen Mary University London.

Bumblebees can be trained to score goals using a mini-ball, revealing unprecedented learning abilities, according to scientists at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

Their study, published in the journal Science, suggests that species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities could learn entirely new behaviours if there is ecological pressure.

Project supervisor and co-author Professor Lars Chittka from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, said: “Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioural flexibility and only simple learning abilities.”

Stepping outside of natural routines

Previous research has shown that bumblebees could solve a range of cognitive tasks, but these have so far resembled tasks similar to the bees’ natural foraging routines, such as pulling strings to obtain food.

This study examines bees’ behavioral flexibility to carry out tasks that are not naturally encountered by the insects.

“We wanted to explore the cognitive limits of bumblebees by testing whether they could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before by any individual in the evolutionary history of bees,” said Dr Clint Perry, joint lead author and also from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

Moving the ball for food reward

The experiment required the bees to move a ball to a specified location to obtain a reward of food. The insects were first trained to know the correct location of the ball on a platform. Subsequently, to obtain their reward, the bees had to move a displaced ball to the specified location.

To learn the technique, the bees were trained under one of three conditions: some observed a previously trained bee move the furthest ball to the centre to gain reward, others received a “ghost” demonstration, where a magnet hidden underneath the platform was used to move the ball, and a third group received no demonstration, where they found the ball already at the centre of the platform with reward.

Image shows a bee holding a ball.

Bee holding a mini-ball. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Iida Loukola.

The bees that observed the technique from a live or model demonstrator learned the task more efficiently than those observing a “ghost” demonstration or without demonstration.

Impressive cognitive flexibility

Joint lead author Dr Olli J. Loukola, said: “The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it. This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect.”

During the demonstrations, the researchers placed three yellow balls at varying distances from the centre. The “demonstrator” bees always moved the furthest ball to the centre, and always from the same spatial location, since they had been trained under conditions where the closer balls were immobile. Untrained bees were given three opportunities to watch a skilled bee perform the task in this manner.

In later tests, when these untrained bees were tested without the presence of a skilled demonstrator, bees moved the closest ball instead of the furthest ball, which they had seen the demonstrator moving. In another experiment, the bees also used a differently coloured ball than previously encountered.

Dr Loukola added: “It may be that bumblebees, along with many other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to solve such complex tasks, but will only do so if environmental pressures are applied to necessitate such behaviours.”

The Chittka lab researches how bees navigate and forage for food – they are an important pollinator that play a vital role in producing the food we eat.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Neha Okhandiar – Queen Mary University London
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Iida Loukola.
Video Source: The video is credited to QMULOfficial.
Original Research: Abstract for “Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior” by O. Loukola, C. Perry, L. Coscos and L. Chittka in Science. Published online February 23 2017 doi:10.1126/science.aag2360

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Queen Mary University London “Ball Rolling Bees Reveal Complex Learning.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 24 February 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/complex-learning-bees-6155/>.
Queen Mary University London (2017, February 24). Ball Rolling Bees Reveal Complex Learning. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved February 24, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/complex-learning-bees-6155/
Queen Mary University London “Ball Rolling Bees Reveal Complex Learning.” http://neurosciencenews.com/complex-learning-bees-6155/ (accessed February 24, 2017).

Abstract

Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior

We explored bees’ behavioral flexibility in a task that required transporting a small ball to a defined location to gain a reward. Bees were pretrained to know the correct location of the ball. Subsequently, to obtain a reward, bees had to move a displaced ball to the defined location. Bees that observed demonstration of the technique from a live or model demonstrator learned the task more efficiently than did bees observing a “ghost” demonstration (ball moved via magnet) or without demonstration. Instead of copying demonstrators moving balls over long distances, observers solved the task more efficiently, using the ball positioned closest to the target, even if it was of a different color than the one previously observed. 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.

“Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior” by O. Loukola, C. Perry, L. Coscos and L. Chittka in Science. Published online February 23 2017 doi:10.1126/science.aag2360

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