Nav: Home

Problem-solving spreads both socially and culturally in bumblebees

October 04, 2016

String pulling is a popular problem-solving task for investigating cognitive abilities in vertebrates, but has never been tested in insects. Now, a social insect has joined the club, according to a study publishing October 4, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Lars Chittka from Queen Mary University of London, UK, and colleagues. The researchers found that bumblebees can figure out how to pull a string to get a sugar water reward, that watching this helps other bees learn to do it too, and that this new skill continues to spread through a colony even after the original string-puller is gone.

Understanding how behavior spreads in other animals could yield insights into the evolutionary roots of culture in humans. Social learning facilitates the transmission of behaviors from individual innovators to a group, and is common amongst animals from birds to rodents to primates. To test social learning in an insect, Chittka and colleagues attached strings to artificial flowers laden with sugar water, put these "flowers" under Plexiglas, and trained bumblebees to pull strings to access the sugar water. "What I like about the work," said Chittka, "in addition to the experimental and intellectual challenges and insights, is the sheer absurdity of seeing bees solving a string-pulling puzzle. When lead author Sylvain Alem first showed me a bee successfully pulling on the string, I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. And even now, looking at the videos still makes me laugh."

The trained bees served as innovators. To see if other bees could learn from them, the researchers put 25 untrained bees in transparent cages where they could watch trained bees demonstrate their string-pulling prowess. Untrained bees rarely learned this skill on their own. But 60% of the untrained bees solved the problem after watching other bees do it, showing that these insects can learn socially.

To test whether string pulling would also be transmitted culturally in bumblebees, the researchers added a single trained bee to each of three colonies of untrained bees. Then the researchers assessed string pulling in pairs of bees. After 150 of these bouts, roughly half of the untrained bees in each colony had learned to pull strings to get sugar water (53, 58 and 42 percent, respectively, for the three colonies). Moreover, even though the trained innovator died after only about a third of the test bouts in one colony, string pulling continued to spread, underscoring the strength of this cultural transmission.

Chittka had initially been skeptical that the experiment would work, but his co-workers were up for the challenge "and found quite quickly that indeed bees could be trained to solve the string-pulling task. But it was even more of a surprise that not only could bees be trained to solve this task in a step-by-step manner - but a small minority of bees actually solved the task by themselves, without gradual training or observing a skilled bee. The final big surprise came in the context of social learning: we discovered that naïve individuals that would observe, from a distance, a skilled string-pulling bee, could subsequently solve the task by themselves."

This work shows that social learning and cultural transmission can occur with a cognitive toolkit far simpler than that of humans. In fact, suggest the researchers, the sophisticated forms of learning and cognition specific to human culture--in all its complexity and diversity--may have evolved from humbler forms like those of bumblebees. "How much brainpower is actually required for any one task - how many neurons, how many sequential and parallel neural processing stages?" wondered Chittka. "In that view, the single task that actually requires a big brain has not been discovered yet, and indeed there is more and more evidence, both from experiments on small-brained insects and computational neuroscience, that small circuits can deal with exceptionally complex challenges."
-end-
In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS Biology: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002564

Citation: Alem S, Perry CJ, Zhu X, Loukola OJ, Ingraham T, Søvik E, et al. (2016) Associative Mechanisms Allow for Social Learning and Cultural Transmission of String Pulling in an Insect. PLoS Biol 14(10): e1002564. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002564

Funding: SA was funded by the Fyssen Foundation. CJP was funded by a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship. XZ was funded by the Staff Development Programme of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG), Chinese Academy of Sciences. OJL was funded by the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation. LC was funded by an ERC Advanced Grant and a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

PLOS

Related Learning Articles:

Learning with light: New system allows optical 'deep learning'
A team of researchers at MIT and elsewhere has come up with a new approach to complex computations, using light instead of electricity.
Mount Sinai study reveals how learning in the present shapes future learning
The prefrontal cortex shapes memory formation by modulating hippocampal encoding.
Better learning through zinc?
Zinc is a vital micronutrient involved in many cellular processes: For example, in learning and memory processes, it plays a role that is not yet understood.
Deep learning and stock trading
A study undertaken by researchers at the School of Business and Economics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) has shown that computer programs that algorithms based on artificial intelligence are able to make profitable investment decisions.
Learning makes animals intelligent
The fact that animals can use tools, have self-control and certain expectations of life can be explained with the help of a new learning model for animal behavior.
Learning Morse code without trying
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a system that teaches people Morse code within four hours using a series of vibrations felt near the ear.
The adolescent brain is adapted to learning
Teenagers are often portrayed as seeking immediate gratification, but new work suggests that their sensitivity to reward could be part of an evolutionary adaptation to learn from their environment.
The brain watched during language learning
Researchers from Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have for the first time captured images of the brain during the initial hours and days of learning a new language.
Learning in the absence of external feedback
Rewards act as external factors that influence and reinforce learning processes.
New learning procedure for neural networks
Neural networks learn to link temporally dispersed stimuli.

Related Learning Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Digital Manipulation
Technology has reshaped our lives in amazing ways. But at what cost? This hour, TED speakers reveal how what we see, read, believe — even how we vote — can be manipulated by the technology we use. Guests include journalist Carole Cadwalladr, consumer advocate Finn Myrstad, writer and marketing professor Scott Galloway, behavioral designer Nir Eyal, and computer graphics researcher Doug Roble.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#529 Do You Really Want to Find Out Who's Your Daddy?
At least some of you by now have probably spit into a tube and mailed it off to find out who your closest relatives are, where you might be from, and what terrible diseases might await you. But what exactly did you find out? And what did you give away? In this live panel at Awesome Con we bring in science writer Tina Saey to talk about all her DNA testing, and bioethicist Debra Mathews, to determine whether Tina should have done it at all. Related links: What FamilyTreeDNA sharing genetic data with police means for you Crime solvers embraced...