F Rosa Rubicondior: Even Educated Bees Do It!

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Even Educated Bees Do It!

The buff-tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris.
Source: Wikipedia
Associative Mechanisms Allow for Social Learning and Cultural Transmission of String Pulling in an Insect | PLOS Biology

It's now well known that humans are not the only species capable of learning new skills and passing these on to others.

Despite the old religious-based view of humans as having a unique intelligence not seen in other animals, and thus standing us apart from the rest of 'creation', like tool construction and use and the ability to solve problems, learning and culture are now being seen in a whole range of other animals. Until now though, this had been confined mostly to vertebrates and almost exclusively to mammals and birds.

Now, however, researcher from Queen Mary University, London, UK, have shown that the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, can not only learn a non-natural skill but can pass this skill on to the entire colony. The new skill even persists beyond the life of the original 'demonstrator' and has been observed over several generations of demonstrators and learners. In other words, new skills can enter the meme-pool or culture of the bumblebee colony.

Social insects make elaborate use of simple mechanisms to achieve seemingly complex behavior and may thus provide a unique resource to discover the basic cognitive elements required for culture, i.e., group-specific behaviors that spread from “innovators” to others in the group via social learning. We first explored whether bumblebees can learn a nonnatural object manipulation task by using string pulling to access a reward that was presented out of reach. Only a small minority “innovated” and solved the task spontaneously, but most bees were able to learn to pull a string when trained in a stepwise manner. In addition, naïve bees learnt the task by observing a trained demonstrator from a distance. Learning the behavior relied on a combination of simple associative mechanisms and trial-and-error learning and did not require “insight”: naïve bees failed a “coiled-string experiment,” in which they did not receive instant visual feedback of the target moving closer when tugging on the string. In cultural diffusion experiments, the skill spread rapidly from a single knowledgeable individual to the majority of a colony’s foragers. We observed that there were several sequential sets (“generations”) of learners, so that previously naïve observers could first acquire the technique by interacting with skilled individuals and, subsequently, themselves become demonstrators for the next “generation” of learners, so that the longevity of the skill in the population could outlast the lives of informed foragers. This suggests that, so long as animals have a basic toolkit of associative and motor learning processes, the key ingredients for the cultural spread of unusual skills are already in place and do not require sophisticated cognition.

Author Summary
Social insects make use of simple mechanisms to achieve many seemingly complex behaviors and thus may be able to provide a unique resource for uncovering the basic cognitive elements required for culture. Here, we first show that bumblebees can be trained to pull a string to access a reward, but most could not learn on their own. Naïve bees learned how to pull strings by observing trained demonstrators from a distance. Learning the behavior through observation relied on bees paying attention to both the string and the position of the trained demonstrator bee while pulling the string. We then tested whether bees could pass this information to others during a semi-natural situation involving several colonies. We found that once one bee knew how to string pull, over time, most of the foraging bees learned from the initially trained bee or from bees who had learned from the trained bee, even after the initial demonstrator was no longer available. These results suggest that learning a nonnatural task in bumblebees can spread culturally through populations.

Despite the obvious differences between humans and other animals, understanding social learning and culture in animals holds a key to understanding the evolutionary roots of the peculiarities of social learning and culture in humans.

Dr Clint Perry, co-author.
This of course is a simple yet convincing demonstration of a cultural meme (the 'knowledge' equivalent of the gene) and shows that far from the ability of associative learning being the result of a large brain, it is a fairly basic skill and certainly not one confined to the 'higher', vertebrate species. This comes on top of news that bumblebees can also learn the location of food from other species such as honeybees.

Far from being the unique species, separate from the rest of life on Earth, as we used to assume, we are learning more and more how similar we are and that our differences amount to no more than the variations we seen between other species. The old religious view of humans as the special creation of a god or gods, which has excused our abuse of the planet in the anthropomorphically arrogant assumption that it's all just for us, is now unsustainable. As an understanding of biology shows us, we are just another of Earth's species, evolved over time alongs with everything else with which we share a common ancestor.

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