Watch these bees learn to play golf in return for sweet, sweet sugar water

They may not look like much, but bees are smarter than you might think. While they’re not going to come up with the next booker prize winner, or solve complex quadratic equations, there’s evidence to suggest they’re not as simple as they first appear – especially if there’s a sugary incentive for them to learn new tricks.

Last year, scientists at Queen Mary University of London taught bumblebees to pull on pieces of string in order to get food, and now they’ve gone one step further: giving them a rudimentary version of golf to play in return for sugar water. That, you could argue, makes them smarter than actual golf players, who need no such bribery to get them out on the green.

The latest experiment involved teaching bees to pick up a small ball and drop it in a hole, which would result in a sugar water treat. Presumably suspicious of a human demonstrating the process, the bees were taught by a plastic bee on a stick, which pushed the ball into the hole first. Nine bees learned how to move a ball this way, while ten shown the ball without the puppet-bee never picked up on the trick.

This successful training out of the way, the researchers then set about teaching new bees in one of three different ways. The first set were taught by bees that had already mastered the art, the second set saw the ball move to the hole led by an unseen magnet, and the last group saw nothing but the ball sitting in the hole. Bees that learned via other bees caught on the most successfully (99%), but those following the magnet’s lead also picked up on what was going on (78%). Those that saw the ball sat in the hole figured it out for themselves around a third of the time.

Now the really interesting bit: with three different balls set at varying distances to the hole, bees invariably picked the closest one, even when they had been trained with nearby balls glued down. This means they weren’t just imitating what they had seen before: the bees were learning generalised patterns to solve problems more easily. “The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it.,” Loukola explained. “This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect.”

“It may be that bumblebees, along with many other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to solve such complex tasks, but will only do so if environmental pressures are applied to necessitate such behaviours.”

Environmental pressures are certainly something that bees are getting used to, as they continue to drop off at an alarming rate. While bees may be smarter than we originally thought, it’s probably still a touch unfair to expect them to solve their population crisis alone. We’re working on the problem, with bee highways in Norway and bumblebee backpacks to track their movements – but if we don’t come up with answers soon, we may have to rely on slightly more dystopic solutions to pollinate our crops.

Image: dasWebweib used under Creative Commons

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