If scoring a goal is the only way to earn a sugary treat, a bumblebee will summon its inner Messi.
Indeed, rolling a ball into a goal—soccer, sort of—is the latest puzzle solved by Bombus terrestris after training with scientists/bee trainers at Queen Mary University of London. In October, scientists from the same lab—the Chittka Lab—taught bees to tug strings for treats. There are no plans to start a traveling carnival; instead, scientists are pushing bees’ to their cognitive limits to learn how complex behaviors arise from minuscule brains.
“There’s no reason to believe that unique capacities of large-brained animals and humans aren’t actually available or present in a lot of other animals,” says Clint Perry, a Queen Mary researcher who studies the power of tiny brains. “Just because a bee has a small brain, it’s not limiting their capacity.”
Perry and colleagues are searching for the fundamental neural mechanisms required for learning, and bees’ significantly smaller neural circuit boards increases the odds they’ll succeed. Bumblebees pack roughly 1 million neurons into their brains, compared to humans’ 1oo billion.
When Chittka Lab behavioral ecologist Olli Loukola first endeavored to teach bees, he nearly gave up after two weeks of trying. But one day, it all came together for a bee and Loukola grabbed a colleague and said, “Come, I have trained my first bee.”
Today, Loukola is a pro; he can train a bee in a day or two using sugar water, patience and fake bees. Bumblebee colonies in the Chittka Lab are connected to training arenas where researchers present bees with a task—in this case, a ball and a hole. Within 5 minutes, bees had to push the ball into the center of a platform to get a reward. Eventually, the task required them to put it in the hole. For stumped bees, Loukola deployed an artificial bee-on-a-stick to nudge the ball and demonstrate proper technique. The bees caught on.