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Bumblebee close-up. Image by Richard Bartz. (licence: CC by SA 2.5)

Bug Brain: Bumblebees Can Learn a Complex New Task Just By Watching Others Do It

We’ve mentioned this in the news briefs, but just in case any of you skimmed over it and missed the story, this mind-blowing story is worth pulling out: researchers have found that bumblebees can learn to do a ‘complex’ new movement, such as pulling on a string, to gain a reward – just through watching other bees do it.

To test the bumblebees’ cognitive skills, Lars Chittka from Queen Mary University of London, UK, and colleagues poured sugar water onto artificial flowers, which were attached to strings and placed under Plexiglas. They then trained bees to tug on the string to access the sugar water — an “unusual” task that does not mimic any behavior the bees would normally perform in the wild.

…The ability of animals with relatively small brains to learn a complex task, and culturally spread that learned knowledge to others, makes Chittka question, “How much brainpower is actually required for any one task — how many neurons, how many sequential and parallel neural processing stages?”

Cool video of a bee pulling on a string below:

This is not the first fascinating discovery about the capability for seemingly complex thoughts and behaviour in bees. It has been known for some time that honey bees are capable of symbolic language use, as evidenced by the ‘waggle dance’ that bees returning to a hive engage in to communicate the location of food sources to others – both the distance and direction.

So the question is: just how much is complex and intelligent behaviour dependent on having a big brain?

Link: Bumblebees Learn to Tug on a String for a Reward

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