Smart animals: bees trained to pull strings for treat (Animals)

by David Turell @, Wednesday, October 05, 2016, 02:00 (236 days ago) @ David Turell

The amazing part is the colony of bees learn by watching a trained bee. Now will it become an inherited instinct

"Chittka and colleagues attached strings to artificial flowers laden with sugar water, put these "flowers" under Plexiglas, and trained bumblebees to pull strings to access the sugar water. "What I like about the work," said Chittka, "in addition to the experimental and intellectual challenges and insights, is the sheer absurdity of seeing bees solving a string-pulling puzzle. When lead author Sylvain Alem first showed me a bee successfully pulling on the string, I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. And even now, looking at the videos still makes me laugh."

"The trained bees served as innovators. To see if other bees could learn from them, the researchers put 25 untrained bees in transparent cages where they could watch trained bees demonstrate their string-pulling prowess. Untrained bees rarely learned this skill on their own. But 60% of the untrained bees solved the problem after watching other bees do it, showing that these insects can learn socially.

"To test whether string pulling would also be transmitted culturally in bumblebees, the researchers added a single trained bee to each of three colonies of untrained bees. Then the researchers assessed string pulling in pairs of bees. After 150 of these bouts, roughly half of the untrained bees in each colony had learned to pull strings to get sugar water (53, 58 and 42 percent, respectively, for the three colonies). Moreover, even though the trained innovator died after only about a third of the test bouts in one colony, string pulling continued to spread, underscoring the strength of this cultural transmission.


"But it was even more of a surprise that not only could bees be trained to solve this task in a step-by-step manner - but a small minority of bees actually solved the task by themselves, without gradual training or observing a skilled bee. The final big surprise came in the context of social learning: we discovered that naïve individuals that would observe, from a distance, a skilled string-pulling bee, could subsequently solve the task by themselves."

"This work shows that social learning and cultural transmission can occur with a cognitive toolkit far simpler than that of humans. "

Comment: I'm not surprised by this finding and have always thought animals could figure out simple tasks or mimic the actions of other members of their group and these behaviors might become instinctual. Weaverbird nests are too complex for this methodology.

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