For a creature with a brain the size of a sesame seed, it turns out bees are pretty smart.
"We knew that bees have some amazing cognitive capabilities," said Clint J. Perry, a cognitive neuroethologist (he studies animal brains) at Queen Mary University London. "They can count up to four. They can navigate incredibly complex environments and have memories and preferences for flowers. They display positive emotions."
And now, thanks to some of Perry's research published this week in PLOS Biology, we now know bees can also learn new skills just by watching other bees. Perry and his team figured this out by first teaching bumblebees a new skill that they wouldn't naturally learn in the wild: pulling a string to free a disc from under a plexiglass covered in order to access the nectar inside.
This skill was taught through a four-step process that took most bees about five hours total to learn on average. (Perry noted this wasn't one long, five-hour cram session. The bees got breaks and, y'know, slept and stuff.)
It was already pretty cool that bees were able to master this tricky (for them) skill, but what was really remarkable was the bees' ability to pass this knowledge on to the rest of the hive. This was accomplished in two methods. In one, an "observer" bee was placed in a small chamber near an actively foraging trained bee, and would watch the trained bee performing the task over and over. After watching the task just ten times, the student bees were released and 60 percent were able to solve the puzzle within five minutes.
Another way bees learned this trick was by hanging around with bees that had already been trained. Though it took longer, bees that went out foraging with trained bees eventually caught on to how their buddy was accessing the trapped nectar, and would be able to solve the puzzle on their own. They, in turn, would become instructor bees, teaching another untrained bee how to get the job done.
"In fact, in one of the colonies, the original trained bee actually died after several days of the experiment," Perry told me. "But the behavior continued to pass along to other bees."
Aside from just being really cool to see bees solve a puzzle, the research is important for a couple of reasons. For one, it demonstrates that some of the learning behaviors we consider complex are actually pretty simple, and can be acquired even by tiny bees.
It also shows that a big brain isn't always necessary for even more complex cognitive function. And while Perry laughed at my suggestion that this shows we can start training bees to do our bidding (laundry folded by bees sounds like a Disney princess fantasy), he did hope this research gives people a better appreciation for how amazing these creatures are.
"The decline around the world, of both honeybees and bumble bees and pollinators in general, is a serious concern," Perry said. "One of our hopes is that people will have a different perspective on bees and insects. They're more than just behaviorally rigid machines. They do have these complex cognitive capacities, and maybe this can help our conservation efforts because people will view them more as individuals with memories and preferences, and not just nuisances."