May 18, 2024

Bumblebees impart specialized knowledge –

The ability to learn complex skills from others is a special human talent. But now a study shows that even social insects are capable of highly sophisticated forms of social learning: bumblebees can learn new behaviors from their own species that are too complex for them to develop on their own. They also appear to have a fundamental ability that underpins our cumulative culture, researchers say.

From hand axes to smartphones: Over the course of our evolutionary history, humans have continually improved their techniques and problem-solving strategies, sometimes reaching a level of extreme complexity. These achievements are based on our ability to greatly expand individual intelligence: we can learn from our fellow human beings in a highly sophisticated way. Socialization of very complex knowledge and complex behaviors is also possible. This ability forms the basis of the so-called cumulative culture on which our current technologies are based. But to what extent is complex social learning a unique feature of our species?

Exploring the social learning ability of bumblebees

At least basic abilities are already attributed to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. For example, techniques such as nut cracking in chimpanzees appear to depend on cultural transmission. But as the results of the study conducted by the research team led by Alice Bridges of Queen Mary University of London suggest, even some insects can have the basic cognitive requirements for cultural learning. Basically, studies conducted in recent years have already shown that these creatures are by no means as simple as was long assumed. Bees in particular have shown intelligence: social insects can not only solve tasks and remember successful strategies. It has already been documented that they can also copy certain behaviors from other animals. Bridges and her colleagues have now explored the limits of bumblebees' ability to social learn.

First, scientists taught some ground bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) to run a complex experimental system in order to receive a sugar solution as a reward. The test animals first had to learn how to move a blue moving object. This removed its blocking function. Only after this step were the bees able to move the red element and thus reach the sugar solution. “It was a very difficult task: the bumblebees had to learn two steps to get the reward, with the first behavior in the sequence not being rewarded,” says Bridges. Without help in the learning process, no bumblebee could discover the two-stage success strategy through trial and error. Only after receiving an initial reward after the first step were bumblebees finally able to learn that the sequence of actions led to success. But once they understood the system, they then moved the two items in the correct order, even without the first reward.

Video: If bumblebees are trained or “coached” by a specific person, they can solve this two-stage task. © Alice Bridges

On the trail of insect culture?

Actual tests then followed to examine social learning ability: The researchers placed a partner in the testing facility with trained bumblebees who had not been familiar with the system before. These bumblebees were then able to observe how the experts successfully operated the two-stage mechanism. These witnesses then faced the task alone. As the researchers reported, it turned out that five out of the 15 experimental bumblebees were actually docile students: They also played the moving items in the correct order without needing a reward after the first move. The scientists concluded that through social learning, insects adopted behavior that they would not have been able to develop on their own.

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According to them, the study once again sheds light on the amazing feats that tiny insect brains are capable of. Specifically, the findings challenge the traditional assumption that only the most evolved organisms are capable of complex forms of social learning. This also means the exciting possibility that some form of cumulative culture exists in some insects. “Think, for example, of the sophisticated nesting architecture of bees and wasps or the agricultural activities of ants that breed aphids and fungi,” concludes senior author Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London. “It seems possible that some of the capabilities of more “The splendor of social insects arose through imitation of intelligent innovators before eventually becoming part of the species' behavioral repertoire.”

Source: Queen Mary University of London Specialized article: Nature, doi: 10.1038/s41586-024-07126-4