Can Bees Learn?
Excerpted from: Bees learn better when they can explore.
They can learn faces, add and subtract and even process the concept of zero.
For all our obvious differences, humans and honeybees share some common threads within the
fabric of life.
We are both social species. While humans speak and write to communicate, honeybees dance to
one another; waggling their bodies for specific durations at angles that indicate where the best
pockets of nectar or pollen are to be found outside the hustle and bustle of the nest.
But only forager bees – the eldest of several types of Honey Bee castes – do this. Just like in human
populations, the honeybee colony is divided into different sectors of work. There are cleaners, nurses,
security guards, not to mention collection bees whose sole job is to cache nectar in comb.
In a new study published in the Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy, they used bees as a model
to understand how different individuals acquire information.
Do you remember your college psychology class and how Pavlov trained dogs to salivate to a bell?
Using animal models to understand learning has a long and proud history. Pavlov famously trained
dogs to associate a sound with a food reward. Eventually Pavlov demonstrated that the dogs began to
salivate at the sound.
Bees are surprisingly good learners and recent research shows individuals can learn faces, add and
subtract and even process the concept of zero. Bees learn complex tasks through trial and error, where
a reward of sugar water is provided for correctly solving a problem.
A honeybee with a white identification mark learns to discriminate between 3 and 5 item displays
that each present the same overall surface area.
The researchers were very interested to discover whether all individual bees would learn complex tasks
in a similar way. Would each individual show similar learning performance throughout training, or would
individuals demonstrate different learning strategies?
One foundation math skill we all learn at about pre-school age is how to add and subtract numbers. Arithmetic
is not a trivial task. It requires long-term memory of rules associated with particular symbols like plus (+) or
minus (–), as well as short-term memory of what particular numbers to manipulate in a given instance.
When they trained bees to add and subtract, we evaluated how many trials it took each bee to acquire the task,
and summarised the data examining how individuals learn in a video seen below.
They were surprised to see that all bees did not learn the task at the same stage of training. Instead, different
individuals acquired the capacity to solve the problem after a different number of trials.
There was no common learning stage throughout the trials where bees achieved success. Rather the task
required bees to try different strategies to see what worked. In particular, the opportunity to learn from mistakes
was critical to enabling the bees to learn maths-based problems.
This finding suggests that when brains have to learn multi-stage problems involving different types of memory,
an opportunity for exploratory behaviour is what nature prefers.
Humans and bees last shared a common ancestor about 600 million years ago. However, we share a large
number of genes and it is likely we have some similarities in how we process information.
We know that bees and humans have a common way of processing numbers from one to four, for instance,
suggesting that learning processes may be linked to evolutionary conserved mechanisms. So bees’ improved
results when learning maths problems in an individual exploratory fashion suggests this may be how humans
too are wired to acquire new skills.
Plants had to solve a problem: they needed to find ways to spread their genetic material.
Flying pollinators were nature's solution. Nectar is made as a reward for pollinators.
Take this quick quiz and see how much you know about bees—our favorite essential pollinators
working around the world. This quiz is intended for fun, in a random-facts-can-be-cool kind of way.
Spring begins and bees are hungry and on the wing looking for food. From
the moment emerge in spring to the time that they hibernate or migrate in the fall, pollinators
need to eat.