I can’t imagine that many people would characterize bumble bees as particularly smart.
Despite playing an important role in our world, both ecologically and economically, most people seem to regard bumble bees with an air of distaste or downright terror. Such is the plight of the bumble bee.
However, one thing that I have noticed is that there seems to have been a distinct increase in scientific studies of bee ecology in recent years. This is likely in response to the obvious decline in populations across the world, as well as the increasing awareness of how important these bee populations are to society.
Many of the recent studies have focused on how intelligent these little creatures could actually be. And the latest study has thrown up some surprising results…
Previous studies found bees to be capable of a wide range of surprising behaviours. In a study carried out by a team of researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, determined that bees have complex navigation skills. They actually achieve all of this without using cognitive maps.
Additionally, previous studies have found bees capable of exhibiting emotions. For example, optimism and using tools to obtain nectar.
Bees have also shown varying levels of intelligence on the individual level. Despite fundamental differences in daily habits between genders, male bees are also as competent at finding food as females.
So, What’s So Important About This Latest Study?
Due to the success of previous experiments in proving intelligence in bumble bees, Olli Loukola, and his team, from Queen Mary University, London, started to wonder if bees could learn to do something with an object they would never have encountered in their evolutionary history.
The team made bees forage for sugar water by moving one of three yellow balls to a specific target. Some bees were first trained to move the ball to the desired location. And the remaining bees were split into three groups.
The first group watched the trained bees complete the task. The second group watched a ‘ghost’ magnet complete the task. And the third group got no demonstration.
In separate tests, the challenge for each bee was to move one of the three balls to the target in under five minutes. The bees that observed their sisters completing the task showed a 100% success rate. Groups two and three showed 80% and 30% success rates, respectively.
Not only did the bees manage to complete the task, but they actually went a few steps further. The bees quickly found that it was easier to move the ball by pulling it rather than pushing it.
Additionally, the demonstrator bees always moved the ball furthest away from the target as the others were glued in place. However, most bees from the three test groups actually moved the one closest to the target, despite watching their sisters move the furthest one.
When researchers swapped the yellow ball closest to the target for a black one, they still moved that one to the target. This showed that they understood the nature of the task and that it wasn’t just a case of ‘bee see, bee do’.
OK Great, Bumble Bees Are Smart, So What?
Over recent decades, natural bumble bee populations showed a considerable decline. Most species in Britain have suffered severe population losses. Three species in Britain are already extinct, with five more facing extinction in the next few years.
This year, for the first time ever, a bumble bee species was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Bumble bee populations have reportedly decreased by 90% since the late 1990’s. This decline is thought to be related to a combination of man-made factors, such as habitat loss, increased pesticide use, and increased pollution5.
Each year in the UK, commercial tomato growers use an estimated 2 million bumble bees to pollinate their crops. The economic value of bumble bees and honey bees as pollinators in the UK is estimated at over £200 million. Other crops that rely on bees for pollination are also used in animal feeds and are necessary for rearing livestock.
The results from this study show promise for the bumble bee community. The flexibility and innovation that they display could help them to overcome problems in the wild. For example, the loss of familiar flowers and the introduction of new ones. Let’s hope that scientists and the general public can work together in the future to ensure the protection of this remarkable and important species.