New Study Shows Bumblebees Possess Surprising Intelligence, Defying Previous Assumptions

Buff-tailed bumblebee on red flower

What are your thoughts on bumblebee intelligence? It is a safe bet that most of us don’t give a second thought to how smart any insects might be, let alone bees. But researchers are not like most of us. They are incessantly curious. They are curious enough to put together a study that has actually revealed how bumblebees solve problems. The study suggest they might be smarter than we think.

Queen Mary University of London researchers conducted their study by training a group of bumblebees to go after a sugar reward by opening a box. To get the box open, they had to solve the puzzle of how to get the lid off. Success was achieved by rotating the lid.

It is pretty amazing that they were able to train the initial group of bees to do that. But what was more amazing was observing how other bees learned to perform the task without any such training. How did they do it? By observing.

Push Here or There

Bumblebees obviously don’t have hands. They also do not have the strength to rotate a lid on a box. So researchers rigged their puzzle box with two buttons. One button rotated the lid clockwise while the other rotated it counterclockwise. All the bees had to do to get to the sugar solution was push one of the buttons. That they could do.

To get the most accurate results possible, the researchers did a few key things. First, they trained one group of bees to open the box by rotating the lid clockwise. Next, they trained another group to open it by pushing the counterclockwise button. Third, they divided the untrained bumblebees into test and control groups.

The test group was divided in half. One half observed the actions of the clockwise group; the other observed the actions of the counterclockwise group. The control group did not observe either behavior. After running their tests, this is what the researchers learned:

  • Bees in the two test groups mimicked the behavior they had observed 98% of the time
  • They continued to mimic the observed behavior even when taught the opposite behavior
  • Bees in the test groups achieved success more often than the control group.

Control group bees were capable of figuring out the puzzle themselves to some degree. But the greatest level of success was measured in those bees that were able to observe other bees getting the box open.

Contrary to Previous Observations

What makes this study so amazing to us is that its results are contrary to previous observations. As the researchers themselves noted, what they observed during their tests lends itself well to the idea of “culture-like behavior” among bumblebees. It is behavior similar to what primates exhibit in the wild. The thing about bumblebees is that such behaviors have not been previously observed in wild populations.

We have long believed that bumblebees, honeybees, and other bee and wasp species work semi-independently but in a collective scenario. Each insect is responsible for its own learning and job performance. There doesn’t seem to be much cooperative effort in terms of social structure, learning, and passing skills on to successive generations.

Apparently, those previous assumptions are not entirely accurate. Maybe bumblebees do not have the same type of social structure as chimpanzees and gorillas. But it is clear from the research that they do learn from one another. Even if that learning is merely through the powers of observation, it is learning, nonetheless.

Learning Is a Natural Behavior

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised by the study’s findings. If you stop and think about it, you soon realize that learning is a natural behavior across nearly all species. Sure, sometimes learning amounts to little more than mimicking what others do. But observing and mimicking is as much learning as any other form of obtaining knowledge and applying it.

Next time you see a group of bumblebees hanging around together outside the hive, don’t make any assumptions about what they are doing. It could be that one or two bees are doing some work and the others are watching and learning. They are apparently smart enough to do that. Kudos to them.

Urban Beekeeping - Managing Hives in City Environments
  • Carter, Anthony (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 194 Pages - 02/28/2024 (Publication Date) - Independently published (Publisher)

Beekeeping Disclaimer:

Beekeeping, like any agricultural activity, involves inherent risks. It is important to understand these risks and take appropriate measures to mitigate them.

Potential risks associated with beekeeping include:

  1. Bee stings: Honey bees are generally not aggressive but can become defensive if they feel threatened or their hive is disturbed. Bee stings can cause allergic reactions or even anaphylaxis in some individuals, which can be life-threatening. It is important to wear protective clothing and follow best practices when handling bees to minimize the risk of stings.
  2. Diseases and pests: Bees can be vulnerable to various diseases and pests, including mites, viruses, and bacterial infections. These can have significant impacts on bee colonies, leading to reduced honey production or even colony collapse. It is important to monitor hives regularly and take appropriate measures to prevent and treat diseases and pests.
  3. Weather conditions: Extreme weather conditions, such as drought or cold temperatures, can affect the health and productivity of bee colonies. It is important to ensure that hives are appropriately sheltered and provided with adequate food and water.
  4. Environmental hazards: Bees can be affected by environmental hazards such as pesticide exposure, pollution, and habitat loss. It is important to be aware of these hazards and take appropriate measures to protect bee colonies and promote healthy environments for bees.
  5. Legal requirements: Beekeeping may be subject to local, state, or national regulations, such as registration or inspection requirements. It is important to be aware of these requirements and comply with them.

While beekeeping can be a rewarding and enjoyable activity, it is important to be aware of the potential risks and take appropriate measures to mitigate them. By following best practices and staying informed about the latest developments in beekeeping, beekeepers can help ensure the health and productivity of their hives and contribute to the well-being of bee populations worldwide.

Last update on 2024-04-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

My new beekeeping log book is now available! "Beekeeping Log Book: 100 Log Sheets for a Complete Record of Your Apiary"

X
Scroll to Top