Skip to content

You are using an outdated browser

Internet Explorer is not supported by this site and Microsfot has stopped releasing updates, therefore you may encounter issues whilst visiting this site and we strongly recommend that you upgrade your browser for modern web functionality, a better user experience and improved security.

Upgrade my browser

String-pulling bees could provide insight into spread of human culture

2 min read

Better Society
String-pulling bees could provide insight into spread of human culture
Source: BrightVibes

Bumblebees can learn to pull strings for food and pass on the ability to a colony – what’s more, good food puts them in a good mood.

Bumblebees can learn to pull strings for food and pass on the ability to a colony

‘Pulling strings to obtain food is an experiment often used to test the intelligence of apes and birds, but it is the first time this technique has been discovered in an insect. Moreover the cultural spread of such a technique from a single informed individual has also been described for the first time in an invertebrate animal.’ Says a report from the Queen Mary University of London.

The secret lives of bees Stories about bees learning to pull strings and being in a good mood after eating some good food created a huge buzz in the media. Source: Facebook/TheGuardian

The skill was passed down through several generations of learners

The results, published in PLOS Biology, show that rare innovator bees were able to solve the problem of pulling the string to reach a sugar water reward by themselves while most others could learn to pull the string when trained.

"Naïve" bees were then able to learn the task by observing a trained demonstrator bee while this skill was passed down through several generations of learners, ensuring its longevity in the population.

Dr Sylvain Alem, lead author of the study, said: “We found that when the appropriate social and ecological conditions are present, culture can be mediated by the use of a combination of simple forms of learning. Thus, cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans.”

Dr Clint Perry, another lead author of the study, added: “Despite the obvious differences between humans and other animals, understanding social learning and culture in animals holds a key to understanding the evolutionary roots of the peculiarities of social learning and culture in humans.”

Source: qmul.ac.uk

Stepwise string pulling training protocol. Successive steps: Step 0, pretraining on blue artificial flowers (note that all bees were trained on this step); Step 1, 50% of the flower covered by the transparent table; Step 2, 75% of the flower covered; Steps 3 and 4, 100% of the flower covered. The flower was positioned at the edge in Step 3 and 2 cm under the table in Step 4.
Stepwise string pulling training protocol Stepwise string pulling training protocol. Successive steps: Step 0, pretraining on blue artificial flowers (note that all bees were trained on this step); Step 1, 50% of the flower covered by the transparent table; Step 2, 75% of the flower covered; Steps 3 and 4, 100% of the flower covered. The flower was positioned at the edge in Step 3 and 2 cm under the table in Step 4. Source: journals.plos.org

Good food puts bees in good mood

We all know what it’s like to taste our favourite food and instantly feel good about the world, but the same phenomenon may happen in bumblebees – say a team of biologists at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

They discovered that after bumblebees drink a small droplet of really sweet sugar water, they behave like they are in a positive emotion-like state. The results have been published in the journal Science.

The findings suggest that insects have states that fit the criteria of emotions and open up new avenues for research into positive emotions in relatively simple nervous systems. 

“Investigating and understanding the basic features of emotion states will help us determine the brain mechanisms underlying emotion across all animals,” said lead author Dr Clint J Perry.

The researchers trained bees to find food at a blue flower and no food at a green flower, and then tested the bees on a new blue-green flower. Bees that drank a small droplet of sugar water prior to the test took less time to land on the ambiguous-coloured flower. Other experiments showed that this behaviour wasn’t due to bees just getting more excited or searching faster.

This indicates that the sweet sugar water may be causing a positive emotion-like state in bees, similar to humans and other animals.

Source: qmul.ac.uk

Make an Impact

10 easy ways to help bees in your garden

Bee-friendly gardening is responsible gardening, from growing the right plants to avoiding chemicals in the garden. With these simple tips you can make your garden a bee paradise, and help other wildlife to survive in your garden and beyond.