“Often people view insects as unthinking machines,” says Clint Perry. a biologist who studies the evolution of cognition in insects at Queen Mary University of London. Science has recently challenged that human-centric assumption, by revealing that the busy buzzers can use tools. count to four, learn foreign languages and even experience some semblance of sugar-derived happiness—traits usually associated with larger-brained animals.
Now, Perry and his colleagues have released the results of a creative new experiment in which they essentially taught bumblebees how to play “bee soccer.” The insects’ ability to grasp this novel task is a big score for insect intelligence, demonstrating that they’re even more complex thinkers than we thought. Moreover, they did it all not just in spite of their tiny brains—but because of them.
For the study researchers gave a group of bees a novel goal (literally): to move a ball about half their size into a designated target area. The idea was to present them with a task that they would never have encountered in nature. Not only did the bees succeed at this challenge—earning them a sugary treat—but they astonished researchers by figuring out how to meet their new goal in several different ways.
Some bees succeeded at getting their ball into the goal with no demonstration at all, or by first watching the ball move on its own. But the ones that watched other bees successfully complete the game learned to play more quickly and easily. Most impressively, the insects didn’t simply copy each other—they watched their companions do it, then figured out on their own how to accomplish the task even more efficiently using their own techniques.
The results show that bees can master complex, social behaviors without any prior experience—which could be a boon in a world where they face vast ecological changes and pressures.
Knowing some of the things bees are capable of might also inspire humans to do a bit more to aid their survival, adds Perry. “We often put ourselves atop a hierarchy, where we’re smart and we have large brains, and anything far removed from us physically or morphologically, especially animals with small brains, must be not smart,” he says. “Understanding that bees and different insects have more complex cognitive abilities can allow us to appreciate them more. And it might help our efforts to manage living with them a little better.”