Bumblebees Are Much Smarter Than You Think, Are Capable Of Problem Solving

Lorenzo Tanos

Bumblebees may have tiny brains, but they may be smarter – much smarter – than we give them credit for.

A new study led by Queen Mary University of London cognitive biologist Clint Perry has gotten a lot of attention as of late. According to NPR, the idea came about when he was trying to test bees' problem-solving skills by creating a "vending machine" for the animals.

"I want to know: How does the brain do stuff?," said Perry. "How does it make decisions? How does it keep memory? And how big does a brain need to be in order to do all of those things?"

Given that bumblebees aren't known for the size of their brains, Perry created a puzzle for the insects that didn't turn out to be at least similar to the vending machine he had in mind, but nonetheless put the bees to some sort of test. According to a paper published in the journal Science and cited by NPR, bees may have tiny brains, but all they need to do is to observe a demonstration of a certain task in order to solve a problem it's connected to.

The study hints that bees can use this problem-solving skill to deal with changes to their environment, including a change of food sources.

But thanks to the new study that suggests bees may be unusually intelligent for the size of their brain, there's a chance that they may find some ways to deal with the ever-changing environment about them.

In the first test, Perry and his fellow researchers created a puzzle that would require bumblebees to go up to a ball at the center of a platform, with sugar water serving as their reward. The bees were found to have climbed the platform individually, looked around, and sucked up the sugar water, claiming their prize. The researchers then tried to see how the bees would react if the ball was elsewhere on the platform, so they moved it to the edge, with the insects using their resourcefulness to adjust to the situation.

"The bees came out, looked at the center, didn't have reward. They went to the ball, didn't have reward. They had to figure out that they needed to move the ball from the edge to the center, and then they'd get reward,"

"It wasn't monkey see, monkey do. They improved on the strategy that they saw," Perry explained. "This all shows an unprecedented level of cognitive flexibility, especially for a miniature brain."

In all, Perry hopes that his group's study inspires humans to help in bumblebee conservation efforts.

"Understanding that bees and different insects have more complex cognitive abilities can allow us to appreciate them more," he said in quotes published by the Smithsonian. And it might help our efforts to manage living with them a little better."

[Featured Image by Oli Scarff/Getty Images]