Bumblebees’ puzzle-solving powers suggest a capacity for animal culture : NPR

A new study finds that wasps can learn to solve puzzles from each other.

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Image Christopher Furlong/Getty

A new study finds that wasps can learn to solve puzzles from each other.

Image Christopher Furlong/Getty

Next time you’re having trouble solving a tricky puzzle, consider asking a nearby wasp.

A new study in the journal PLOS Biology found that these humble insects can actually learn to puzzle each other, suggesting that even some invertebrates like these social insects are capable of what we humans call “culture”.

“These creatures are really amazing. They are really good at learning despite having tiny brains,” said Alice Bridgea behavioral ecologist at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.

Over the past few decades, more and more evidence has accumulated to show that animals like gorilla And bird gives evidence of culture, “by which we really mean that animals learn from each other,” says White Andy, a cognitive ethologist who studies wildlife minds at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This learning can range from navigating a migration route to using a tool to access a particular food.

“If what they’re learning lasts for a long time then we might be willing to call it a tradition. And culture is made up of many traditions,” says Whiten.

These behaviors tend to be passed down from generation to generation. It’s the same thing with humans. Some of us learn from the more experienced how to make matzo ball soup or dance the merengue dance, and then we pass it on to our children.

Whiten likens culture to a more flexible second form of inheritance.

Bridge agrees. “It actually works a lot faster” than genetics, “because you can learn a new behavior to fix the problem from someone else,” she says.

Since culture can be extremely helpful to a species, and it seems to be increasingly common in the animal kingdom, Bridges wondered if bumblebees might have that ability.

“Nobody really thought of looking at it in invertebrates before,” she said. Even in wasps, social insects spend a lot of time together. “They have some of the most complex, complex behavioral repertoire in the animal kingdom. However, it is thought that they are primarily driven by innate factors.”

Bridges set out to prove them wrong.

To study wasp culture in the lab, she first had to train a few industrious bees to perform a novel behavior. She chose to solve a box of puzzles.

“But trying to design this box is crazy because bees are really, really smart, sometimes very annoying,” explains Bridges. “They’re always looking for a more efficient solution and it’s always not the solution you want.”

For example, bees always “hack” the puzzle by crawling through unintended gaps in the device to gain the delicious prize inside.

Finally, Bridges landed on a design where the bees had to play straight. She held up the result.

“I basically built it out of a Petri dish,” she said triumphantly. The base of the Petri dish contains the reward: a super-sweet drop of sugar water. The bridges cut a small hole in the cap “to form a rotating top that can be rotated by pushing this red tab clockwise or the blue tab counterclockwise.”

She trained some bees to headbutt the red tab for sugar water and trained others to push the blue tab. Bridges then placed these tutor bees in different colonies, along with puzzle boxes.

It’s not a game, and it’s all fun: Messing around with all these bees causes Bridges to get stung over and over again. The fourth sting sent her to the hospital for anaphylaxis.

“So then I had to wear a bee suit during a heatwave to do the experiments, which was miserable,” she giggled. “I used to put a small electronic fan inside the hood.”

However, Bridges persisted and the test finally took place. In colonies where tutor bees have initially learned to push red tabs, other bees in the colony often push red tabs. In colonies where tutor bees were trained to press the blue tab, their fellow bees tended to do the same.

“We found that the behavior spread between colonies,” she said. “They copy the behavior of protesters even when they occasionally find out that they could do something else.”

In uninstructed control colonies, the bees sometimes learned to unbox, but never efficiently or reliably. “Most of them will do it once or twice and then never do it again,” Bridges explains. “They probably [had] did not understand what they did or they did not fully make the connection between their behavior and the reward.”

In conclusion, Bridges and her colleagues at Queen Mary University report in their report new research today, it’s bumblebees that can transmit certain behaviors – culturally.

“We were taught that a lot of insect behavior is pre-programmed,” says jessica clothes, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the study. “And what this newspaper does is eliminate that. I mean, who knows what locusts are capable of – or vile cockroaches.”

Because wasp colonies collapse before winter, there is little chance that a tradition can be passed on from generation to generation. So Bridges is planning future research on swarming insects that last for years, like non-venomous bees.

Of course, insect culture can look quite different from that seen in other animals, especially humans. It’s a question of extent, said Whiten, who was also not part of the study. “Cults vary greatly between species in ways that I think have different effects on the complexity of the brain involved,” he said.

However, Bridges argues that her work with bumblebees suggests that perhaps the culture is not that unusual.

“Perhaps it doesn’t require very, very complex cognitive mechanisms,” she said. “Maybe it’s not the peak of awareness that only some species have. Maybe it’s actually very common.”

Ware agrees.

“Many of us consider ourselves and our fellow primates quite special… because we have culture, we can learn and we get along,” she said. But now “it turns out that bees also have a culture, that’s a hard truth”.

Whiten summarizes the fact that “all that we have discovered about animal culture that is, human culture, once thought to be unique,” he says, “doesn’t appear ‘out of the blue’. which was clearly built on a deep evolutionary foundation.”


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