Despite their occasional annoying sting, bumblebees are essential to the continuation of life as we know it: They play the essential role of pollinating the plants that turn into our everyday foods and the flowers that beautify our planet. But the matriarchal colony is complex, and recent studies of “bee-haviors” have revealed a more advanced capacity for learning than originally predicted including the ability to count, teach, use tools, and solve math problems. It is also known that bees perform a “waggle dance” to dictate the direction and distance of nearby food sources. This is an example of “actively coordinated collaboration”, in which one individual with a goal enlists others to help. In contrast, the most complex tier of cooperativity is “collaboration based on shared intentionality”, which occurs when there is mutual awareness and shared goals. Researchers recently discerned whether this “intentionality” occurs in bees. 

These researchers set out to train bees to perform tasks with the reward of a sugary treat, either alone or with a partner. The tasks included pushing a cube to a defined spot and coordinating movements to open a sliding door. Strikingly, the bees that trained alongside others waited for their partner to begin attempting a  task whereas those who trained alone did not hesitate to begin a task. This is evidence that bee behaviors are socially influenced by the presence of other individuals, but it was not yet conclusive if that behavior is based on intentionality; i.e.,the bees could have been waiting for their partner selfishly in order to more easily obtain the reward rather than pursuing completion for the benefit of both itself and its partner. The authors plan to follow-up with studies requiring more active synchronization and coordination to reap the reward. 

It is fascinating to observe neuroscience at all levels of the animal kingdom. Beyond intrigue, it is also essential to understand cooperation so that we can protect the planet and the essential role of bees in our ecosystem. 

This study was led by Olli J. Loukola at the University of Oulu, Finland.

Managing Correspondent: Olivia Lavidor

Press Article: Bumblebees Surprise Us Again: New Study Reveals Their Impressive Cooperative Skills (Science Alert)

Original Journal Article: Evidence for socially influenced and potentially actively coordinatedcooperation by bumblebees (Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences)

Image Credit: Pixabay

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