Ordinary bumblebees learn new skills by observing the behavior of talented bumblebees.

Published on October 05, 2016

Ordinary bumblebees learn new skills by observing the behavior of talented bumblebees.


    Ground Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

    Social learning - the transfer of knowledge from an innovator to all other members of the population (observers) - is common not only among people, but also among other animals. Examples include washing potatoes and fishing in primates, cleaning pine cones in rodents, and opening milk bottles in birds. Studies have shown that individual acquired skills can be very widely distributed in a population of animals living in a large area. None of the animals no longer remembers where such a skill came from, who specifically invented this innovation. Simply, knowledge is passed down from older to younger.

    This phenomenon attracts the attention of scientists, because it allows us to understand the origin of man. How did we get such an important quality as the transfer of skills to each other? After all, the effective dissemination of new skills from individual innovators to less gifted congeners is a key evolutionary factor in the cultural processes that have made us human.

    Scientists have found that some animals successfully demonstrate two necessary factors for evolution: 1) they are able to learn the skill from a demonstrator (for example, a human being); 2) are able to demonstrate the acquired skill to their relatives. New knowledge can be preserved in the population for several generations.

    Some of the acquired and transferred knowledge is quite difficult to learn. What distinguishes bees and other highly organized social insects is that complex collective decisions (for example, the decision to build a hive in a new place) can be made by transmitting relatively simple signals to each other. This is an interesting feature of swarm insects, which can be useful in optimizing human society, as well as in creating systems of swarm intelligence , which are now being actively improved in robotics.

    In this regard, it is interesting that scientists have never carefully studied how exactly knowledge of new methods of food production spreads in the social network of insects. Scientists from the University of London, Queen Mary (UK) conducted just such an experiment. The goal of the scientists was to determine the functioning of the basic cognitive elements of culture.

    The study of bees is devoted to a special science - apiology . Apiologists spend their entire lives exploring these unusual insects, and still we still know far from all of their abilities. In recent decades, it turned out that bees can distinguish between logical categories of objects, have spatial concepts, understand the mathematical concept of multiplicity. Studies have shown that bees know how to make inferences about the presence of valuable food sources by indirect signs. Therefore, scientists proposed for the purity of an experiment on the transfer of skills to teach the bees new behavior, which is completely unusual for them.

    For this task, apiologists from the University of London, Queen Mary, chose the task of pulling the food with their paws on the rope.



    To participate in the experiment, a group of earthen bumblebees ( Bombus terrestris ), belonging to the genus of bumblebees from the family of real bees, was chosen .

    Bumblebees were selected from eight different colonies. Not a single bumblebee in the preliminary test could not complete the task of pulling the rope with food for 5 minutes. After that, the bumblebees were gradually trained to get a flower from under the plexiglass, pulling it out by the rope. The training took place according to the standard method: at first the flower was almost completely accessible from under the plexiglass, so it was possible to get it in one step. Then the flower was hidden under the glass by half, then by 75%, and so on. In the end, the bumblebees realized that you can get a flower if you pull the rope for a long time, turning it over with your paws. The average training time for one bumblebee was 309 ± 18 minutes.

    Scientists then determined that among all the bumblebees, there are innovator bumblebees who are quicker than others to learn how to pull food by the rope. Two of the experimental group of 110 bumblebees turned out to be such. They learned to pull the rope in just 10 minutes, having tried several different methods to get food during two five-minute sessions ( video: innovator's actions ). They noticed the method of pulling the rope by chance when they were trying to get a flower out of the glass.

    Experience has confirmed that new skills can be mastered by bumblebees randomly, but this is a rare ability that is available only to gifted bumblebees. All the other bumblebees passed the test many times after that, but they never learned to pull the rope.

    Scientists have checked whether observer bumblebees can learn how to obtain food from bumblebee demonstrators, as it should be in their natural habitat. For this purpose, a special arena was organized to observe the actions of the bumblebee-demonstrator by 52 other individuals (observers).

    At the same time, demonstrators were trained to demonstrate their skills twice during each session. 25 out of 52 observers were later allowed to the rope - and 17 of them were able to successfully get food on the first attempt. The speed of pulling the rope from observers turned out to be almost as slow (181 ± 19 seconds) as in the talented self-taught bumblebees (245 ± 3.53 seconds), which is an order of magnitude slower than in the bumblebees that were trained by professionals (22.1 ± 1 ,5 sec).

    In the end, scientists checked how quickly new knowledge spreads in the bumblebee colony. They also tested several hypotheses about which methods bumblebees use to master new skills during observation. It turned out that observers do not learn specific movements of the paws, but are aware of the presence of a stimulus and find out where the cells need to be, using the trial and error method ( video: actions of an inexperienced bumblebee after an observation session of an experienced demonstrator ).

    The study showed that bumblebees are capable of developing rather complex and unnatural new skills by observing other bumblebees. In addition, some gifted bumblebees are able to master these skills on their own. Experience has shown that the presence of gifted bumblebees is important only in the first stage. Having learned a skill, ordinary bumblebees normally pass it from generation to generation, in the absence of innovators. In the end, it was confirmed that the directed development of skills from a more developed civilization contributes to a more rapid spread of skills in the colony than self-development of skills by self-taught innovators.

    The scientific work was published on October 4, 2016 in the journal PLOS Biology (doi: 10.1371 / journal.pbio.1002564).