Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior

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Science  24 Feb 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6327, pp. 833-836
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2360

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Very clever bees use tools

One hallmark of cognitive complexity is the ability to manipulate objects with a specific goal in mind. Such “tool use” at one time was ascribed to humans alone, but then to primates, next to marine mammals, and later to birds. Now we recognize that many species have the capacity to envision how a particular object might be used to achieve an end. Loukola et al. extend this insight to invertebrates. Bumblebees were trained to see that a ball could be used to produce a reward. These bees then spontaneously rolled the ball when given the chance.

Science, this issue p. 833


We explored bees’ behavioral flexibility in a task that required transporting a small ball to a defined location to gain a reward. Bees were pretrained to know the correct location of the ball. Subsequently, to obtain a reward, bees had to move a displaced ball to the defined location. Bees that observed demonstration of the technique from a live or model demonstrator learned the task more efficiently than did bees observing a “ghost” demonstration (ball moved via magnet) or without demonstration. Instead of copying demonstrators moving balls over long distances, observers solved the task more efficiently, using the ball positioned closest to the target, even if it was of a different color than the one previously observed. Such unprecedented cognitive flexibility hints that entirely novel behaviors could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities, should relevant ecological pressures arise.

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