Clever Bees Learn How to Use Tools

clever bees

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bees were successfully trained to move a ball to a specific location in order to get a food reward; other bees learned the skill best by watching other bees do it
  • In previous research, bees learned to pull a string in order to access a sugar solution
  • The skill ultimately spread rapidly throughout the colony, demonstrating a form of cultural transmission of knowledge to the next generation of learners

By Dr. Becker

Using objects as tools to achieve a goal is a skill once thought to be uniquely human. Later, it was discovered that primates also have this ability, as do marine mammals, birds and many other species. Even bees, it turns out, are clever enough to use tools, as evidence by a new study published in the journal Science.1

Although bees don't use tools in the wild (that we know of, anyway), the study suggests bees could develop this knack if they had to, such as in the face of rising environmental challenges. According to the study:2

"Such unprecedented cognitive flexibility [in bees] hints that entirely novel behaviors could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities, should relevant ecological pressures arise."

Bees Learn to Move a Ball to Get a Reward

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London first trained bees to move a tiny ball to a specific location on a platform in order to get a sugary reward (a process that took about five days). The trained bees then were trained to show other bees how to perform the trick to get a reward of their own.

A separate group of bees was also trained using a "ghost bee," i.e., a magnet used to move the ball across the platform. All of the trained bees learned how to do the task to get their reward, but the bees trained by other bees learned it more efficiently. What's more, they weren't simply copying the behavior of the other bees — they made more efficient use of tools when possible, choosing balls that were closer to the target instead of moving them over long distances.

According to the researchers, "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."

Bees Also Learn to Pull a String for Food

Some of the same researchers from the ball study previously found that bees learned to pull a string in order to access a sugar solution. While only a few of the bees figured out how to perform the task spontaneously on their own, the other bees were then able to learn it by watching the actions of the others.3 The skill ultimately spread rapidly throughout the colony, demonstrating a form of cultural transmission of knowledge to the next generation of learners.

"This suggests that, so long as animals have a basic toolkit of associative and motor learning processes, the key ingredients for the cultural spread of unusual skills are already in place and do not require sophisticated cognition," the researchers noted. This study represents the first time the spread of cultural technique has been demonstrated in an invertebrate animal.4

Bees Are so Intelligent, There's Artificial Intelligence Modeled After Them

Some level of bee intelligence is not unheard of. A bee hive in itself, which may be home to close to 80,000 bees depending on the season, is a marvel of cooperation, which each type of bee doing its job to protect the interests of the hive as a whole. Worker bees represent the bulk of the hive, and they are all female (although they're sexually immature and not able to reproduce). There's one queen bee and 300 to 3,000 drone bees, which are male bees kept for the purpose of mating with the queen.

There are also scout bees, which set out in search of locations to build a new colony. This is what gave Louis Rosenberg, creator of Unanimous AI, a tool that uses pooled human collective insights along with artificial intelligence to make smarter decisions, an idea. "If you look at social species like bees they work together to make better decisions," he told BBC News. "That's also why birds flock and fish school — it allows them to react in optimal ways by combining the information that they have." BBC News continued:5

"When a swarm of bees wants to set up a new colony it must come to a collective decision about where to build it. A few hundred scout bees will set off in different directions to look for potential locations. When they return, they perform a waggle dance to communicate information about what they have found to the swarm.

Different scouts attempt to pull the swarm towards or away from their preferred direction and eventually the colony decides as a group which scout to follow, making a decision no individual bee could ever have made on their own."

The resulting Unanimous AI tool uses "swarms" of people to correctly predict the outcomes of sporting events and more using crowd wisdom modeled after bees. It's thought that one day the bee-modeled tool may be used by businesses looking to make accurate sales forecasts or doctors to help them make more accurate diagnoses.

Previous research even revealed that tiny bee brains can solve mathematical problems, like figuring out the shortest route between flowers, faster than some computers.6 They also have demonstrated the ability for conceptual learning, such as knowing whether something is the same or different.7

Bees Provide Invaluable Benefits to Food Production and the Environment

In the U.S., pollination by insects including honeybees and native bees results in $40 billion worth of products annually. Honeybees alone help to pollinate 87 of the top 115 food crops.8 Aside from food production, pollination is necessary for the survival of many other plant species as well, like wildflowers.

Unfortunately, bees and other pollinating animals are suffering from population declines caused by habitat loss, agricultural chemicals, diseases and parasites and more. To protect this valuable and, as it's increasingly being recognized, clever species, Pollinator Partnership suggests doing the following:

  • Growing native plants, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators
  • Installing houses for bats and native bees
  • Supplying salt or mineral licks for butterflies and water for all wildlife
  • Reducing pesticide use
  • Substituting flower beds for lawns