Bees Learn How to Solve Problems From Other Bees

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Photo: Harold Lloyd/Getty Images

Culture is one of the reasons that humanity has become so dominant — sharing tips on what to eat and how to live has been pretty useful in the propagation of the species. But here’s the thing: Big-brained, bipedal apes aren’t the only ones in the culture game. It goes all the way down to insects.

This insight comes from a rather endearing new study in PLOS Biology from a team at Queen Mary University in London. As Kate Kelland reports at Reuters, the researchers successfully trained 23 of a group of 40 bees to use their itty-bitty legs to pull on little strings; the strings would open up tiny transparent screens, allowing the bees to fetch food from artificial flowers. Conversely, just 2 of a group of 110 bees were able to figure it out on their own.

When another group of voyeuristic bees watched their clever peers yank the string and grab the grub, 60 percent learned the skill. Then, when the researchers put the trained bees into a bee colony, the technique spread to a majority of the worker bees.

“Cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans,” co-author Clint Perry told Reuters. Indeed, it may be that crows are able to make such disconcertingly fancy tools because they pass knowledge down generations; same with elephants and their trails. Innovative hunting techniques go viral in humpback-whale populations. While humans appear to be the only animal with awards shows, we’re far from the only beasts with culture.