Hive Minds: Bumblebees Collaborate to Learn Complex Behaviors

Featured Image Caption: In a groundbreaking discovery, bumblebees have been shown to have a more sophisticated social culture than previously known. Bees could learn to solve a challenging puzzle through social interaction, demonstrating their ability to learn new and complex behaviors beyond their individual cognitive abilities. This study suggests that advanced social learning is not unique to humans, and encourages further exploration of collaboration and culture in the animal kingdom. (Image source: ‘Yellow-faced Bumble Bee’ by Lauren Glevanik, CC-BY-NC 4.0, via iNaturalist)

Source article: Bridges, A.D., Royka, A., Wilson, T. et al. “Bumblebees socially learn behaviour too complex to innovate alone.” Nature (2024).

Creating Buzz: Bees as Microinfluencers

If you’ve ever tried to train a pet, you know how challenging it can be for an animal to learn a new behavior. When you consider that a cat’s brain is 13.5 thousand times larger than a bee’s brain, it seems even more remarkable that these tiny insects can learn so many different behaviors. However, bees have a remarkable ability that was previously assumed to be exclusive to humans: influencing. A recent study published in Nature suggests that bumblebees pick up new knowledge and behaviors through social interactions with other bees, and this accumulated knowledge allows them to solve complex problems beyond what any individual bee could accomplish on its own.

To figure out how bees could be sharing knowledge socially, scientists presented them with a complicated 3D-printed puzzle box with nectar hidden behind trapdoors. The puzzle was designed to be too tricky for any single bee to figure out on their own, involving a series of levers that the bees needed to push in sequence in order to access the sugary reward.

A diagram showing the physical dimensions and setup of the puzzle box presented to the bees, shared from the original research article.
Researchers designed this 3D-printed puzzle box to test if bumblebees could socially learn behavior through observing and imitating peers. A sugary reward was placed on the yellow target which was then covered with the red tab and locked in place with the blue tab. Bees had to first push the blue tab with no immediate reward, then the red tab to unlock the nectar. (Image source: Figure 1 from “Bumblebees socially learn behavior too complex to innovate alone,” Bridges et al. 2024, Nature. CC BY 4.0)

Training bumblebees to complete a puzzle was definitely a challenge. The researchers slowly taught a few bumblebees to accomplish one step of the puzzle at a time through offering rewards for completing increasingly difficult lever-pushing tasks. The bees completed each step and were rewarded with nectar until they could successfully solve the puzzle. Eventually, trained bees could complete the two steps of the puzzle without nectar after the first lever, which is something an untrained bee would have no reason to repeat. This group of bees were then introduced to the rest of the colony to demonstrate the puzzle-solving behavior and test if knowledge could be passed between bees.

Surprising Bee-havior: Working Together to Solve Complex Problems

Researchers first gave the puzzle box to a group of untrained bees who had never seen it before. Without help from the scientists or from trained bees, they were unable to access the nectar. This result is expected, since the multi-step lever puzzle is meant to be too challenging for a bee to figure out on its own without specific training and lots of small nectar rewards along the way. However, when untrained bees were able to observe a trained “demonstrator” bee, they exhibited a remarkable ability to solve every step of the puzzle and get the reward at the end – without any extra nectar rewards in the middle! This behavior demonstrates that bees possess a form of social learning where they acquire knowledge and skills by observing and imitating others in the colony.

These skills are a form of cultural transmission in the community, where successful behaviors are passed from one individual to another. It was previously thought that only humans possessed such a high level of social learning behaviors, but these bees can collaborate to share knowledge beyond what a single bee would be able to achieve on their own. 

Bee-hind the Scenes of Collaborative Bumblebee Culture
A close-up of the face of a bumblebee looking for nectar on a flower head.
Bombus terrestris, the bumblebee species observed in this study. (Image source: ‘Buff-tailed Bumble Bee’ by im_shook___, CC-BY-NC 4.0, via iNaturalist)

Researchers use the term “cumulative culture” to describe the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills beyond an individual’s own intellectual capacity. Learning from others is part of what allows for highly intricate or complex behaviors to develop, since it goes beyond what any single individual can innovate. We usually reserve this idea of cumulative culture for human populations. Imagine having to re-invent a smartphone from scratch by yourself – it would be nearly impossible for a single human to innovate this alone, but through collaboration and incrementally building and sharing knowledge, we have created something beyond what anyone could do individually over a single lifetime.

This study challenges the idea that humans are the only ones capable of socially learning complex behaviors, as it is the first to document evidence of this phenomenon in non-human animals. For these bees, this behavior probably came about because it was advantageous to copy the behaviors of clever innovators. In a large social group such as a colony of bees, there are also lots of chances to observe and imitate beneficial behaviors from others. This advantage of learning from other bees has snowballed into a larger culture of collaboration and building on previous individuals’ knowledge. 

What’s particularly exciting is that this is just the beginning! Knowing that these behaviors are possible in more than just humans opens new possibilities for understanding animal intelligence and how complex behaviors came to exist. By studying how bees learn from each other, we can start to understand how social behavior and intelligence might have arisen across different species. Figuring out how knowledge is passed between individuals is not only important for insect or animal societies, but also toward building our understanding of learning and cognition more generally.

Bees are just the beginning to challenging our assumptions that only humans can create and sustain “culture.” Discovering the buzz about bee brains will help us better understand how animals – from the smallest insects to your pet – think.

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Lauren Glevanik

Lauren Glevanik

I'm a PhD student at the University of California Los Angeles investigating how seed dispersal contributes to plant coexistence across landscapes. My research connects field measurements with models to get a more realistic picture of how plants move and interact with each other and the environment. While I work with plants, I also love birding and nature photography. You can find me documenting every organism I see on iNaturalist, eBird, or a number of other community science platforms.

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