Scientists give bumblebees Lego blocks, revealing that the insects can work very well together

Scientists give bumblebees Lego blocks, revealing that the insects can work very well together
Scientists give bumblebees Lego blocks, revealing that the insects can work very well together

And that is very surprising for several reasons.

We mainly know bumblebees as hard-working pollinators. But there is more, Finnish scientists reveal in the magazine Proceedings of The Royal Society B. Bumblebees are also capable of teamwork.

To collaborate
The researchers base these conclusions on experiments. In these experiments, bumblebees were trained in pairs each time. A number of bumblebees learned that they had to push a Lego block aside together to get a treat. Other pairs learned that at the end of a tunnel they had to push a door together to receive a reward.

The researchers managed to get the bumblebees to work together in this way. A great achievement in itself, of course. “Our results show for the first time that bumblebees can learn outside their hive to take on new tasks that require cooperation,” said researcher Olli Loukola.

To wait
But things got even more interesting when the researchers set up a second experiment, in which the pairs were split up. One bumblebee was held for a while, while its collaboration partner was sent towards the Lego block or the closed door at the end of the tunnel. Strangely enough, the bumblebees released onto the Lego block or the closed door – which had previously moved the Lego block or opened the door with a friend – did not immediately start working to secure their reward. Instead, they hung around and often only started pushing the Lego block after their collaboration partner had joined them. And when they were released into the tunnel with the closed door at the end, they often turned around before reaching the door and only flew back towards the door as soon as they saw their delayed partner flying towards them. In other words: the bumblebees seemed to be waiting for their cooperation partner.

Control group
It is at odds with what researchers saw in the control group. This consisted of bumblebees that were trained to move Lego blocks or open doors on their own. When these bumblebees were sent alone to a Lego block or door, they – unlike the bumblebees who had learned to work together – immediately started working to secure their reward.

Social influence
It reveals that the behavior of the bumblebees that had learned to cooperate was influenced by the presence, absence and flight direction of their cooperative partner. “It shows that cooperation among bumblebees is socially influenced and not just driven by individual efforts,” Louloka concludes.

The research also very carefully hints that bumblebees that work together tailor their behavior to what their cooperation partner does and therefore there is actually a coordinated cooperation. But more research is needed to draw that conclusion, Louloka warns. “Whether bumblebees really understand the role of their partner requires more research in which their behavior while working together is monitored in even more detail.”

The fact that bumblebees are capable of cooperation at all is remarkable for several reasons. It is quite surprising that the small insect brain facilitates cooperation, says Louloka. “The results of the study challenge the conventional view of insects by showing that even the tiny brains of bumblebees allow them to work together toward a common goal.” The fact that bumblebees are capable of cooperation is also surprising, because in the wild bumblebees usually operate alone and sometimes even seem to avoid their congeners. It raises the question why they still have the ability to work together with others of their own kind. In their study, the scientists raise the possibility that the ability to cooperate and to form a (basic) understanding of the role that a possible cooperation partner plays is secretly widespread in the animal kingdom, because it increases the chances of survival. For example, cooperation can be useful or even necessary at specific moments in the lives of organisms. For example, when food is scarce or there is danger. Organisms that are able to join forces would then have an advantage and therefore the ability to work together – even for organisms that usually do everything alone – could still be advantageous from an evolutionary perspective.

Future research should therefore reveal whether bumblebees – and other invertebrates – have a nuanced understanding of the role played by their collaborative partner during a jointly performed task. Researchers are also curious whether bumblebees might cooperate based on a shared intention. Previously, researchers suggested that chimpanzees and possibly other great apes are able to work together for the same goal. However, it is unclear whether species that are further away from humans are also capable of this. More insight into this is important, because it can ultimately give us a better picture of how our ability to work together has evolved.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Scientists give bumblebees Lego blocks revealing insects work


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