This worker bumblebee has been taught that if she pulls the string, she’ll be able to get to the artificial blue flower’s sucrose solution center. Scientists from the Bee Behavioural and Sensory Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London individually taught the bees this trick to find out if experienced bees could teach it to their peers… but can a social animal like a bumblebee teach this non-natural task to another bumblebee? From the Washington Post:
The scientists successfully trained 23 of 40 bees. (It took about 5-and-a-quarter hours per bee.) Of the 23 pulling bees, three were selected as demonstrators. The scientists put an untrained bee in a separate cage, and let her watch the demonstrator. Out of these bees, 15 in 25 figured out how to pull on the string.
Once trained bees were allowed to interact with their colonies, knowledge of the string-pulling behavior spread. In two colonies, the researchers recorded the pulling behavior at four degrees of social separation. In other words, bee D learned to pull the string from bee C, who learned from bee B, who learned from bee A.
This is called social learning or cultural transmission: “Animals that are able to solve problems and imitate the behavior of others are therefore able to transmit information across generations.” Full text at plos.org.
Watch more bee videos, including why honeybees do the waggle dance and a bumblebee dislodging pollen in slow-mo, or watch more about how animals learn: more evidence birds can count, communicating with dolphins using echolocation, and a wild crow solves a puzzle in 8 parts.