A team of researchers wanted to show once and for all just how intelligent creatures with small brains can be. For their experiments, they used bumblebees and observed how the small insects learned to accomplish a certain task in order to receive a tasty reward. Interestingly enough, bumblebees not only adapted quicker than anticipated, but they also improved on the method, said the scientists.
According to the paper published on Thursday, February 23rd in the journal Science, bees join the ranks of organisms capable of wielding tools to their advantage. Queen Mary University of London researchers revealed through experiments that bumblebees are a lot clever than previously thought, even though they possess brains with 100,000 times less computing power than humans.
To get their reward, the subjects had to roll a ball across a table into a hole. Contrary to popular belief, the insects did not blindly follow other representatives’ lead but exhibited an abstract understanding of the task instead. Scientists have performed similar experiments in the past. In order to get their fill of ambrosia, the bees had to pull a string. However, this behavior resembled too closely other tasks the insects perform in the wild anyway. Hence, the researchers needed to design a different task to test their cognitive capacity. Hence, the scientists dropped the subjects in a scenario that stretched far beyond anything the insects would have been used to in the wild.
As a result, they placed a small ball on a table where the bees had to land and subsequently push it into a hole. If the subject successfully dunked the ball, the scientists would reward the insect with a snack of sweet sucrose solution. However, while some bumblebees were able to accomplish the task on their own, other needed help. So, the researchers used a bee-decorated stick to show the insects how to push the ball to the goal. Later, the subjects that were trained offered lessons to others and demonstrated how to accomplish the task for uninitiated subjects.
Furthermore, at one point, the scientists placed three balls on the table, each one farther from the goal. Some bees pushed the ball closer to the hole to the goal, even though their “trainers” chose the farthest of the three. Hence, the researchers demonstrated the bumblebees had some level of abstract understanding of the task at hand and were able to improvise, even though evolution has not provided them with a rigid adaptation.
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