These insects have brains about the size of a sesame seed, but when it comes to getting what they want, they are quite willing to learn. In a study conducted at Queen Mary University in London, scientists wanted to see if bees possessed the cognition to learn a task and then pass it on through cultural transmission.
The researchers chose to use the “coiled-string test,” which is often used to test the cognition levels of vertebrates, but this was the first time it has been used with insects.
With this test, the bees had to try to pull string connected to a blue disc that resembled a flower. The disc held sugar water at its center and was tucked under a sheet of Plexiglas.
When first exposed to the discs, the 50 bees were not able to figure out what to do. After being given a second chance, two of 25 bees managed to tug the string to get their prize.
“These two bees were exceptionally explorative, trying a wide variety of methods, and solved the task in several attempts by moving the string accidentally while trying to reach the flower under the table,” the study said in the journal .
The researchers didn’t stop there. They proceeded slowly to train a batch of bees on how to pull the string and ended up with 23 out of 40 retaining the knowledge.
Choosing one of these trained bees, they allowed it to serve as a demonstrator while a naïve bee watched in a separate container. Out of the 25 bees that observed the trained bee, 15 bees knew to pull the string when presented with the challenge.
The trained bees were returned to their colonies and the string-pulling knowledge spread rapidly. According to the research, the skill traveled at four degrees of social separation, meaning that one bee learned the ability from another, which learned from a different bee, which also learned from a separate bee.
“Cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans,” Clint Perry, a co-author of the study, told .
Here is a clip of one of the trained bees using its new trick: