Bumble bee school

Buff tailed bumble bees can teach each other to open a puzzle box.

Researchers trained demonstrator bees to push a lever to open a box and win access to a sugar solution;  the demonstrators were then returned to their colonies. Over the next twelve days, all the colonies with demonstrator bees learned to open the puzzle box, while colonies without demonstrators struggled and their individual bees rarely managed to find a way into the sugar.

All photographs taken by DKG

There were two ways to open the puzzle box (push a red lever clockwise, or push a blue lever anticlockwise) and each demonstrator bee was taught only one method. Even when bees from a demonstrator’s colony learned to use both levers, they almost always preferred to use the method taught by the demonstrator bee. Buff tailed bumble bees are, apparently, conformists.

Nobody is suggesting that opening a box with a lever is a complex problem, it is really nothing more than smash and grab but this is learned behaviour, spread through social learning and maintained over time, just like a cultural trend. While we are reviewing the ecological importance of invertebrate species, perhaps we should also be considering the possibility some might be capable of culture, a thing we like to think of as the preserve of mammals.

In our present global climate crisis, social learning could be a useful trait for our buff tailed bumble bees. If behavioural adaptations to change can be learned quickly, rather than evolved over generations, the species is to some degree armed against future environmental challenges.

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