Behavioral ecology

Score! Bumblebees see how to sink ball in goal, then do it better

Bee on a tiny ball
A buff-tailed bumblebee rolls a yellow ball toward a goal as researchers explore just how odd a task bees can learn and how much observing others helps them succeed.

PLAY BALL

Even tiny brains can learn strange and tricky stuff, especially by watching tiny experts.

Buff-tailed bumblebees got several chances to watch a trained bee roll a ball to a goal. These observers then quickly mastered the unusual task themselves when given a chance, researchers report in the Feb. 24 Science. And most of the newcomers even improved on the goal-sinking by taking a shortcut demo-bees hadn’t used, says behavioral ecologist Olli Loukola at Queen Mary University of London.

Learning abilities of animals without big vertebrate brains often get severely underestimated, Loukola says. “The idea that small brains constrain insects is kind of wrong, or old-fashioned.”

He and colleagues had previously challenged bees to learn, in stages, the not very beelike skill of pulling a string to reveal a hidden flower. Bees eventually succeeded. So the researchers devised an even more fiendish protocol to see how far insect learning could go.

Loukola invented six-legged sort-of soccer (or football for bees in London) in which a Bombus terrestris rolls a yellow ball about the size of its own body down a trackway to a central goal, where researchers dispense sugary…