From Our ArcHIVES - Part 2: Fumbling Our Way Through Some Bumblebee Facts

This is our second instalment that delves into cognition and other cool areas concerning social insects. Find the first part of our series here.

Just like honeybees, bumblebees also show impressive learning abilities and are very talented little insects. In this second feature of our series, we showcase the bumble bee and its extraordinary capabilities to show emotions, learn and solve complex tasks and trick plants into flowering early!

Forget me not! How bees remember and learn about flowers

Finding out how bees learn and remember reminds us of how intelligence takes many forms and how cognition in other species can be special and unique. The research showing how bees are hyper aware of their surroundings, encourages us to support them through providing appropriate and efficient resources and plantings.

Bumblebees have been found to have very short learning times, with even two-hour old bees able to perform just as well as their older sisters. This indicates that bees are able to quickly create neural links between memories and cognition, for instance in where resources can be found or what jobs they need to undertake as part of the hive. This research found that different bees can accomplish different tasks. These tasks are associated with the division of labour and indicates the different cognitive challenges associated with each task. For example, one important task is the caring for bees within the hive and another, the determining and locating of food resources outside the hive. It appears that bees have incredibly fast levels of learning and are able to quickly and efficiently absorb information on foraging and finding new resources for the hive.

This, in particular, is showcased by how bumblebees remember flowers - it appears they can identify which flowers are more ‘profitable’ and which potentially have associated predators such as crab spiders which can mimic the colours of flowers and enable the hunting of bees. Similarly, bumblebees will change their foraging paths due to other environmental impacts such as heavy rain or wind.

There is a common misperception that behavioural flexibility can only be achieved by creatures with large brains but research such as that provided above and below shows that this perception is misguided and actively limits our understanding of these outstanding creatures.

Bumblebee soccer! Let’s get the ball rolling…

Bumblebees can be trained just like little soccer players into using mini balls to score goals. A study published in The Science Magazine, suggests that bumblebees are capable of learning new behaviours if under ecological pressure. Researchers from the Queen Mary University of London conducted a series of experiments which consisted of training bumblebees into moving a ball to a specific location in order to obtain a cup of yummy sugar syrup. The researchers selected a group of bumblebees who would receive personalised training on how to achieve this goal. The bees were trained to know the exact location of the ball on a platform and how to displace it to the specified location.

Later on, the researchers tried three different set-ups for different groups of bumblebees. In group 1, bumblebees observed a previously trained bee moving the furthest ball to the marked location to get the reward.

In group 2, bumblebees received a ¨super natural¨ demonstration, where a magnet hidden below the platform was used to move the ball.

Finally, in group 3, bumblebees did not receive any demonstration - the ball was simply put at the marked position on the platform with a reward.

The bumblebees from group 1 were the clear winners of the challenge. They were able to understand and undertake the task more efficiently (99% success) than those in groups 2 and 3 (78% and 34% success respectively). This indicates that they are social creatures after all, and learn from their sisters.

Another interesting outcome was the observation that the bumblebees sometimes solved the challenge in different ways to the one demonstrated. For example, the researchers set three yellow balls on the platform. When training the first bee, only the ball the furthest to the mark was mobile. However, new untrained bees were given these three options, and simply chose the ball closest to the mark. Even more interesting, in further tests they were given a different selection of colours and still nailed the challenge!

This awesome experiment shows that bumblebees are able to observe and copy behaviours and can also learn and improve, demonstrating their capability of higher cognitive flexibility. If you are amazed and left wanting more, please check out the youtube video below to see these amazing little fluff balls in action:

Bees love me, bees love me not

Research indicates Bumblebees are able to feel positive emotional states when receiving sugar water unexpectedly. This was discovered through an experiment where animals were trained to associate stimuluses with reward and with absence of reward or weak punishment. In this regard a positive emotion like state is inferred when animals refer to stimulus in ways that were deemed rewarding.

When doing this experiment with bumblebees they trained them with green and blue flowers which either had rewards of sugar water or didn’t. After the training period they gave some bees sugar water before leading them to some ambiguously coloured flowers. The bees which had received sugar water before the testing took less time to land on new flowers, indicating a positive or optimistic outlook they might have had. Whereas the bees which did not receive sugar water took much longer. This could also be seen when the testing had bees in a combative state before sending them to the flowers, while not attending to the flowers as quickly they were still faster than the control group. Overall these researchers were able to identify that bumblebees feel the motivation for reward. In this research design researchers were able to reflect that bumblebees change their decision making based on an emotional state in this case positive judgement bias to ambiguous stimuli.

This research goes a long way to show to us that Bumblebees and other invertebrates are not autonomous with reduced behavioural cognition but instead are able to feel emotional states like fear and happiness. This is important as while we may know bees are important we should also know how they are similar to us and why it is our responsibility to help and protect them. If you are interested in learning about how to help these bees you can find some more information and ideas on the PlantingSeeds website on planting for pollinators.

So to answer the question of if bees love us or not, we think that for now, this can only be seen through the petals we pull off in games of to love or not to love, pollinated by our fuzzy, happy friends.

Two pints of fresh nectar please

Finally, one of the most extraordinary things bumblebee bees do is tricking plants into flowering earlier in order to receive nectar. But, how can they do this? Well, yet again, some researchers from the ETH Zürich and the Universite Paris-Saclay designed a very cool experiment. In order to understand it, we need to know that bumblebees are also social bees but most species will form annual colonies that die out every winter. They however, send males and queens into the environment during autumn so they hide and hibernate during the coldest months. At the beginning of spring, queens come out very hungry and look for nectar and pollen in flowers to eat but also to commence a new colony. If these queens wake up too early, many plants might not yet be in flower.

However, these queens have a wildcard up their sleeve, a very smart way of pushing flowers into blooming earlier. Like a baby having a tantrum for candy, bees often have to manipulate different parts of a flower to access nectar. They will nibble hollows in the leaves of the plants, spurring the plants to flower way ahead of their scheduled time. By nibbling on leaves it causes some plants to flower early as they would if they were distressed by diseases or drought. Before this research, no one knew that these pollinators could stimulate flowering under specific conditions.

The experiment was simple: scientists set up some Mustard plants in a greenhouse and also collected bumblebee colonies that had not eaten pollen in three days. They observed that the bees nibbled 5-10 holes in each leaf. The plants ended up flowering within the next 17 days while plants that had not nibbled upon flower after a course of 33 days.

Lastly, to find out whether making holes in plants alone could stimulate flowering, the researchers cut similar holes in the plans too. Interestingly these plants flowered earlier than the ones that had no holes but later than the ones that were nibbled by bumble bees. What is the secret then, we don’t know but certainly follow up experiments should be carried out to get more answers into this intriguing but fascinating behaviour. For there is always more opportunity for research to reveal more about bees and their impact, something which you can be apart of with our B&B Highway.

Bumblebees are very interesting creatures and in fact not as humble as one would think. Apart from carrying out most of the tomato buzz-pollination in the world they also are incredibly cognisant creatures. Displaying behaviour that we would recognise in ourselves such as playing soccer or having positive and negative emotions, these cute little creatures are important and smarter than we might think.

With that we hope our series can help you connect better with our pollinators and help them against their growing decline. Some of this can be done through creating simple options of resources in your garden or creating insect hotels to host some of these wonderful creatures.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of the social bee cognition chronicles. Next time the amazing and interesting stingless bees…


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Andre J Riveros & Wulfila Gronenberg (2009) Learning from learning and memory in bumblebees, Communicative & Integrative Biology, 2:5, 437-440, DOI: 10.4161/ cib.2.5.9240

Baracchi D, Lihoreau M and Giurfa M (2017) Do Insects Have Emotions? Some Insights from Bumble Bees. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 11:157. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00157

Chittka, L (2017), Bee Cognition Primer, Current Biology, 27, 1049-1053

Olli J. Loukola, Clint J. Perry, Louie Coscos, Lars Chittka. Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior. Science, 2017 DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2360