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Bees have learned to play footy with their mates

All creatures are magnificent in their own way, but you have to give it up for bees.

Everyone knows they make honey and help pollinate the earth. But they also communicate through dances, whoops and headbutts. According to Wired, they may even have emotions!

These facts alone are mind-blowing, but scientists have just published a study that adds a new discovery to the list, and it is seriously challenging our view of insect brains.

In their very own version of footie, bumblebees have learned how to push a ball to the centre of a platform in exchange for a sugary treat.

Not only that, bees that watched their mates perform the task learned how to do so with less effort. This suggests that they aren’t satisfied just to copy, but that they are looking to improve on what their bee buddies achieved.

Research has already showed that insects are capable of cognitive tasks. However, this is the first time that insects have been shown to learn something by watching and perform a task that is outside the usual duty of a bee.

After watching their mates “kick” the little wooden footy three times, the bumblebees were able to do the same, implying a kind of social learning was taking place.

In order to take it up a notch, the researchers gave each “teacher bee” three balls to move. Two had been glued in place, and one – which was farthest from the goal – could be rolled freely. “Learner bees” were then presented with three balls in the same position, but this time none of them were glued. However, this time the learners didn’t copy the teacher and move the farthest ball, they went for the closest one.

Insects do have tiny brains, but they may be more powerful than we think.

Olli Loukola, an author of the study, told New Scientist that the bumblebees demonstrated “cognitive flexibility” and even simple tool use with the rolling of the ball.

Until recently, it was assumed that insects operate purely on instinct, hard-wired to take certain actions.

However, research such as this challenges that assumption. In these bees, we are seeing something different. It isn’t quite pure cognition as we experience it, but it isn’t simply hard-wired behaviour either. It’s something in between, and we haven’t quite figured it out yet.

The research into insect brains continues and there is still a lot to learn in this field. However, one thing is for sure – bees are awesome.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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