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.Bee population decline has been a hot-button issue for beekeepers conservationists for several years already. And earlier this year, the previously unthinkable had happened, as the U.S. government declared the rrusty-patched bumblebee as an endangered species. According to the Huffington Post, a number of factors had contributed to its decline, including climate change, the destruction of its natural habitat, pesticide use, and "intensive" farming. The latter in particular was cited as bringing about a lack of crop diversity, leaving bees with less of their usual foods to eat.
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,"Subsequent experiments proved what was shown on the first one – bees may not always solve problems the first time around, but they find ways to do it. A second test had the bees changing their routes to get to the sugar water faster, or by dragging the ball and simultaneously walking backward. This took place after the bees had observed another one use the same techniques.
"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."Perry added that bumblebees are also able to do other things that few people may have thought are possible, such as counting up to four, pulling strings, and using uncertainty as a variable when making decisions. And it's all because of how their brains are wired – these brains may have much fewer neurons than a human brain does, but they may be connected in such a way that bees can overachieve and do more than their brain size or neuron count suggests.
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]