Bumblebees learn to solve puzzles by watching peers, study finds

Bumblebees learn to solve puzzles by watching their more experienced peers, scientists in Britain have found.

Experts from Queen Mary University of London trained a set of bees to open a puzzle box containing a sugar reward.

These bees then passed on the knowledge to others in their colonies, the study found.

The researchers discovered that “social learning” may have had a greater influence on the behaviour of bumblebees than previously imagined.

To carry out the study, the scientists created a puzzle box that could be opened by rotating a lid to access a sugar solution.

The lid could be rotated clockwise by pushing a red tab, while pushing a blue tab could rotate it anti-clockwise.

The scientists trained “demonstrator” bees to use one of these methods to open the lid while the “observer” bees watched.

When the observer bees tackled the puzzle, researchers found they chose the same method they had seen 98% of the time, even after discovering the alternative approach.

The study also found that bees with a demonstrator opened more puzzle boxes than control bees.

This suggests the bees learned the behaviour socially rather than discovering the solution themselves, the researchers said.

Dr Alice Bridges, who led the study, said bumblebees were not known to show “culture-like phenomena” in the wild.

“However, in our experiments, we saw the spread and maintenance of a behavioural ‘trend’ in groups of bumblebees – similar to what has been seen in primates and birds,” she said.

She said the behaviour of social insects like these bumblebees were “some of the most intricate on the planet”.

In other experiments where both “blue” and “red” demonstrator bees were released into the same groups of bees, the observer bees initially learned to use both methods, but eventually they developed a preference for one solution, which then dominated in that colony.

This shows how a behavioural trend might emerge within the bee population, according to the study.

In this case, researchers said that any changes in foraging behaviour might be due to experienced bees retiring from foraging and new learners arising, rather than the bees changing their preferences.

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