Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Scientists at Queen Mary University of London successfully taught bumblebees to score goals with a tiny ball, highlighting the insect's advanced learning abilities.
"Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioural flexibility and only simple learning abilities," biologist Lars Chittka said in a news release.
Unlike previous bumblebee intelligence studies, which presented the insects with problem-solving opportunities resembling their real world challenges, scientists at QMUL designed an unusual task for the bees -- rolling a ball into a goal.
"We wanted to explore the cognitive limits of bumblebees by testing whether they could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before by any individual in the evolutionary history of bees," said Clint Perry, a researcher at QMUL's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.
Bees were rewarded with food for both locating the ball at the center of a platform and rolling it to a specified location -- into a goal. Scientists used three demonstration techniques. Some bees watched other bees perform the tasks and earn rewards. Others witnessed the ball being moved by a hidden magnet. Some received no demonstration at all.
Bees who witnessed a live or model demonstrator learned the task more quickly than those who saw the ball moved by the magnet or received no demonstration.
Researchers relayed the results of their tests in the journal Science.
"The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it," said lead study author Olli J. Loukola. "This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect."
Demonstrator bees always moved the farthest of three balls into the goal, as they had been trained using setups where only the farthest of the balls was mobile -- the other two were fixed to the platform. The newly trained bees, when allowed to attempt the task, rolled the closest balls into the net, even when the ball was a different color than the color seen in the demonstration.
"It may be that bumblebees, along with many other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to solve such complex tasks, but will only do so if environmental pressures are applied to necessitate such behaviors," said Loukola.