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Bees in a classroom.
Bees learn by watching each other (though probably not in classrooms)
Credit: Courtesy of Laurence Leong

What’s the latest buzz? Scientists in England just discovered that bumblebees learn from one another! This is a surprising ability for an insect with a brain much, much smaller than puzzle-solving primates and birds.

Bumblebees aren’t regular honeybees. They’re much bigger, and they live in small colonies of around 150 bees. Bumblebees were accidentally introduced to Tasmania about 30 years ago, but mainland Australia is still luckily bumblebee free.

To test if bumblebees teach each other, Dr Alice Bridges devised a clever puzzle with a sugary reward. Importantly, the puzzle has two different — but equally difficult — solutions. Next, Alice’s team taught a few bees only one of the solutions. Then they sent these “demonstrator” bees back to their colonies and set out more puzzles for all the bees to try.

Did the other bees learn from the demonstrator bees? After careful observation, Alice’s team found that the colony bees used the demonstrator bee’s solution 98% of the time. If the colony bees were coming up with their own solutions, you’d expect them to have a 50-50 chance of using each method. Clearly, the bees were teaching each other!

The scientists repeated the experiment several times, and it didn’t matter which solution the demonstrator bees started with. The colony would always prefer the method the demonstrator taught, even when some bees discovered the other solution.

If bumblebees teach each other puzzle solutions, they could also be teaching and learning all kinds of things throughout their lives. But different colonies don’t teach each other, so bees from different colonies might learn completely different things. And that means there could be “cultural differences” between different bumblebee colonies. Not bad for tiny-brained bugs!

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