Scientists at the Queen Mary University of London have managed to prove through various tests that bees are a lot more intelligent than previously thought, with the insects displaying flexible decision making and adaptation to external factors to which they had never previously been exposed to.
Up until now, it was known that bees were able to communicate to each other using “waggle dances” that indicated to their counterparts the direction of food, and were able to pull string to access said food. However, the latest discovery by biologist Olli J. Loukola and his team shows that bees are capable of much more.
The experiment set up by the team of English scientists involved exposing the bees to scenarios they would never encounter in the wild, and record their response. Loukola created a platform whereby bees were expected to push a tiny ball into a circle in the middle, upon completion of which they would receive a reward. Using various methods, from fake plastic bees to “ghost” bees that moved thanks to a magnet, the team of scientists endeavoured to teach a number of the insects how to move the ball and claim their prize.
Once able to understand the system, the trained bees constantly managed to move the ball across the platform, into the circle and awaited their reward; the control experiment, where bees had not been trained to move the ball, failed. Scientists then introduced more bees to the experiment, letting the trained ones instruct and show the others how to complete the test. This new set of bees also succeeded in their task. But were they simply imitating the actions of their counterparts, or had they really adapted their behavior?
In order to further test their new hypotheses, the scientists altered parts of the platform, changing the color of the balls, adding more than one to the course and at varying distances from the circle. Despite all the changes, the bees recognized that the ball closest to the circle would be the better option than the others, and still managed to pass the test, adapting to the changes and displaying intelligence that hitherto had not been recorded by the scientific community.
This discovery certainly changes how scientists view bees, and helps us understand more about their flexible decision-making abilities, as Loukola and his team noted in their observations:
“The bees did not simply copy the behavior of the demonstrator but rather improved on the observed behavior by using a more optimal route.”
Could this discovery somehow help save the species’ rapidly declining numbers? Whilst that answer, much like the cause of their decline, remains a mystery, it certainly doesn’t hurt to learn more about a species which is so integral to the Earth’s ecosystem.