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The next time you’re having trouble solving a complicated puzzle, consider asking a nearby bumblebee.
A new study in the journal PLOS Biology He found that these lowly insects can also learn to solve puzzles from each other, suggesting that even some invertebrates like these social insects have the capacity for what humans call “culture.”
“These creatures are really quite incredible. They are really, really good at learning, despite these tiny, tiny brains,” says Alice Bridges, a human ecologist at Anglia Ruskin University in England.
Over the past two decades, a growing body of evidence has accumulated to show that animals like chimpanzees and birds show evidence of culture, “which really means that animals learn from each other,” says Andy Whiten, a cognitive ethologist who studies animals at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This learning can range from navigating a migratory route to using a tool to access a certain food.
“If what they learn lasts for a long time,” said Albo, “then we are ready to call it a tradition. And the culture of traditions is made up of multiples.”
These behaviors tend to be passed down from one generation to the next. It is the same with men. We learn from some of the more experienced people how to make matzo ball soup or dance the meringue, and then we pass it on to our children.
It whitens the culture of the second, a more flexible form of inheritance.
It meets bridges. “It matters much faster” than genetic inheritance, he says, “because you can learn new behaviors to overcome a problem from someone else.”
Since culture can be incredibly beneficial to a species and seems to be increasingly common throughout the animal kingdom, Bridges wondered if bumblebees might have the ability to do it.
“No one had really thought of looking at this in invertebrates before,” he said. Not even in bumblebees, which are social insects that spend a lot of time together. “They have some of the most intricate and complex repertoires of behavior in the animal kingdom. Yet humans assume that they are mostly driven by innate reasons.”
Bridges set out to prove them.
To study culture in bumblebees in the lab, he first had to train a few industrious bees to perform new behaviors. He decided to solve the puzzle box.
“But trying to design this box is kind of crazy because bees are really, really smart, sometimes frustratingly so,” Bridges explains. “They are always looking for a more effective solution and it will always not be what you want.”
Bees have always been the “biggest” puzzle, for example, through ignorance they squeezed gaps in their thinking to get inside a tasty reward.
Finally, after landing the bees, play the right strategy. He holds the event.
“Basically, I built it out of Peter’s dishes,” he said triumphantly. Peter’s prize at the base of the bowl: A drop of super sugar water. Bridges cut a small hole in the lid “to form a rolled top that can protrude either through the red tab clockwise or the blue tab anti-clockwise.”
He trained some bees to head-butt the red tab to get sugar water, and pushed others to the blue tab. Then the bridges placed these bee educators in different colonies with puzzle boxes.
It wasn’t all fun and games: Fiddling with all these bees resulted in Pontius being hit many times. The fourth sting sent her to the hospital with anaphylaxis.
“So he had to wear a bee suit after being in a heat wave for experiments, which was miserable,” he chuckles. “I used to put a little electronic fan inside the hood.”
Bridges, however, persevered, and the experiment finally took place. In the colonies where the bee educator had learned that the red tab was pushed, the other bees in the colony usually pushed the red tab. In the colonies, where the bee educator set up the blue tar to act, their bees were trained to do the same.
“We found behavior in the colonies,” he said. “They also imitated the behavior of the demonstrators, sometimes finding themselves doing the opposite.”
In controlled colonies where there were no tutors, the bees sometimes learned to open the boxes, but never effectively or reliably. “Most people do it over and over and never again,” Bridges explains. “Maybe” [had] they did not understand what they had done, or they did not sufficiently connect their behavior with the reward.’
The conclusion, Pontius and his colleagues at Queen Mary University report in a new study today, is that bumblebees can transmit certain behaviors — culturally.
“We’ve learned that a lot of insect behavior is about species,” says Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the research. “And what is this paper on the head, that is, who knows what it can do to a locust, or a lowly cockroach.”
Because bumblebee colonies collapsed before winter, there was little chance that the tradition could be passed down from generation to generation. So Bridges is discussing future work on insects that live in colonies that last for years, like bees without stingers.
Of course, the culture of insects can be viewed rather from the culture that has been seen among other animals, especially humans. The issue is the degree, says Whiten, who was not part of the study. “Cultures vary enormously in specific ways that I think have different implications for the complexity of the brain,” he says.
However, Pontius argues that his bumblebee work shows that perhaps that culture is not unusual.
“Maybe it doesn’t require very, very complex cognitive mechanisms,” he says. “Maybe there isn’t some pinnacle of knowledge that only a few species have. Maybe it’s very widespread.”
“Many of us consider ourselves and our primates to be rather special … because we have culture and we can learn and we are social,” he said. Now, however, “it turns out that the bee also has culture, that is, the truth is inconvenient.”
That truth, Albo summarizes, is that “everything we have learned about animal culture means that human culture, once a unique thought,” he says, “did not emerge out of the blue,” but was clearly built on deep evolutionary foundations.
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