Bumblebees are far smarter than most of us give them credit for! A new research study has recently discovered that bumblebees use social learning to pick up new "trends" in their behavior, with one form of behavior showing the potential to spread rapidly through a colony even when a different version is discovered.
To investigate this further, the researchers designed a two-option puzzle box that featured either a red or blue tab that could be turned clockwise or counter-clockwise, respectively, in order to reveal a sugary solution reward inside. Demonstrator bees were trained to use either the red or blue tabs, while observer bees watched and attempted to open the box after it was their turn - remarkably, they overwhelmingly opted for the method they had seen previously. This preference for the taught option was then maintained by whole colonies of bees, with an impressive 98.6% success rate being reported.
An additional experiment split colonies into 'blue' and 'red' demonstrators, which showed fascinating results: 97.3% of the incidents of box-opening used the red method in the first population, while observers preferred the blue method over the red on all days except one in the second population. This demonstrates how behavioral trends might emerge in populations - understood to be mostly due to experienced bees retiring from foraging and new learners arising rather than any changes in individual behavior.
Commenting on these discoveries, Dr. Alice Bridges from Queen Mary University of London suggested that "social learning may have had a greater influence on the evolution of this behavior than previously imagined." Professor Lars Chittka also highlighted that "the fact that bees can watch and learn, and then make a habit of that behavior" proves that they are far more aware creatures than many people assume them to be. This research shows an intriguing insight into how bees might actually acquire complex behaviors - potentially challenging our understanding of what is instinctive versus what can be socially learned among species such as primates and birds too. So next time you see some buzzing bumblebees gathering around flowers, consider just how much intelligence there really is behind their actions!