Like People, Bees Learn From Watching One Another


Bumblebees may not have the large, highly-developed brains that certain other animals possess – us extremely intelligent primates, for example – but they can perform surprisingly sophisticated tasks, like using logic and picking up cues from their fellow bees.  Scientists at the Zoological Society of London have been examining social learning in bees and they have published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

As part of their experiment, the researchers placed a number of artificial flowers in “flight arenas”.  Blossoms of one particular color had been baited with nectar.  The scientists then released a group of bees into the arena while another group of bees was placed on one side of a screen so they could observe as their fellow bees collected nectar from the fake flowers.

Later, the observer bees were released into an arena so they could obtain their own nectar.  Bees in the second group repeatedly chose flowers the same color as those they had seen chosen by the first group, unlike a group of “naïve foragers” – bees who had not watched the first group.

However, bees that been previously trained to associate the popular flower color with quinine (a substance that bees dislike) disregarded their fellow bee’s preference, opting for other flowers instead.  Just an example of how sometimes being smart means following your gut.

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Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.