“Even though they have these brains that are literally the size of a pinhead — they’re absolutely tiny — they still have some of the most intricate and complicated behavioral repertoires on the entire planet,” said Alice Bridges, the study’s lead author and a lecturer of biology and animal behavior at Anglia Ruskin University in England.
Bridges has been studying bumblebees since 2017, when she started her doctoral degree at Queen Mary University of London. Like most people, she’d always thought the insects were “really cute” but became more fascinated as she learned about their behavior and processes.
The first step for the study, which began in 2018, was to design a puzzle for the bees.
For their experiments, Bridges and the research team created a round puzzle out of Petri dishes that could be opened two different ways. If the bees opened the container, they could get the reward inside it — sugar water.
To see if the Bombus terrestris could learn from one another, the Queen Mary University team trained a few bees to solve the puzzle, using only one of the two options. She made sure the bees that were selected knew how to push the tab in the puzzle to get to the sweet reward.
Bridges then sent the trained bees back to their respective colonies. A little while after that, each colony was brought to the puzzle.
As the bees in each colony solved the puzzle, the team realized the trained bees had shared what they learned.
“Some of them would play around with the box and find the alternative solution, but they still would revert really strongly back to the demonstrator’s preferred behavior,” Bridges said. “So, this essentially meant we were seeing the establishment of like a local trend.”
The way humans define it, “culture” is quite complex, she added. But she said the “common denominator” of both human and nonhuman culture is behavior that is learned from someone else, or social learning.
“It’s not innate or instinctive,” Bridges said. “You have to learn it.”
During the scientific process, Bridges got a couple of bee stings that led to hives. After the fourth sting, she had a reaction so bad, she had to go to the hospital.
After developing the allergy, she started wearing a bee suit to work and getting weekly shots. And she hired research assistants to work directly with the puzzle containers so she wouldn’t have direct contact with the bumblebees.
While doing those things got “pretty intense” at times, Bridges said it was worth it for the team’s breakthrough.
Bumblebee populations in recent years have been dropping because of rising temperatures. With that threat in mind, Bridges hopes the team’s study can be used for conservation efforts — perhaps as insight into how some bees can learn new behaviors in their rapidly changing environment.
“It is something that can have really big implications,” she said. “Not just for conservation, but also, I think, our understanding of ourselves and our place in all of this.”