Bees Demonstrate Unexpected Smarts, Can Learn 'Soccer'

Bees can be taught to 'kick' a ball into a goal, not a complex task they would find useful in nature, and they can teach it to naive bees, too.

Bumblebees can be trained to score mini-goals using a mini-ball, revealing unexpected learning abilities
Bumblebees can be trained to score mini-goals using a mini-ball, revealing unexpected learning abilities Iida Loukola, QMUL

At least some insects are smarter than assumed, based on a study that managed to teach bees a skill for which they have no use whatsoever – kicking a ball into a goal.

Bugs are generally thought of as miniature juggernauts governed by instinct, like flies unthinkingly fixated on our sandwich, who don't reach conclusions from the sight of a swatter. But under ecological pressure, bees have demonstrated an ability to learn an entirely new behavior that would be utterly useless in nature.

For instance, a bee can be taught to kick a very small ball into a very small goal, in exchange for a food reward, it turns out. Then other bees can learn from him how to do it. This is not a behavior arising from pure instinct.

Bees demonstrate unexpected smarts, scores a goal

"Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioral flexibility and only simple learning abilities," stated project supervisor and co-author Professor Lars Chittka from Queen Mary University of London.

The honey bee brain is about one cubic millimeter in size, or similar to a sesame seed, which is however rather large on the insect scale. Scientists were shocked in 2013 to discover that the barely-brained honeybee can understand conceptual relationships such as same/different and above/below, which rely on relationships between objects, not absolute physical presence.

Bee see, bee do

And forget monkeys. Bees have already been shown to have the ability to learn from one another, the same English team demonstrated last year: bees had to pull a string in order to get to sugar water in a disc placed under transparent Plexiglas. Two of almost 300 bees figured out the technique by themselves, – and when naïve (untrained) bees watched trained bees do it, or models of bees, they learned the trick.

That sort of skill could serve them when foraging in their natural life, not that flower nectar is typically covered in plastic sheeting. The present study the insects' ability to do something completely alien to them, though rewarded for success. No question about it, no bees ever played soccer.

Crucially, "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," says joint lead author Dr. Olli Loukola.

Conclusion: Bees have a lot more cognitive flexibility than had been assumed.

The conclusion is evidently that life forms we thought to be driven almost solely by instinct have the cognitive capacity to solve complex tasks, if they have no choice. This capacity could be extremely helpful to them in the new, rapidly changing environment in the era of climate change.