F Rosa Rubicondior: Creationism in Crisis - Like Humans, Bumblebees Learn Through Social Interaction And May Have Cumulative Culture

Friday 8 March 2024

Creationism in Crisis - Like Humans, Bumblebees Learn Through Social Interaction And May Have Cumulative Culture

Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris
Source: Wikipedia.
Bees master complex tasks through social interaction - Queen Mary University of London

A sacred Tenet of creationism is that we humans are a special creation by the creator of the universe who made everything just for us. They point to the many 'unique' traits and abilities of humans as evidence of this - the ability to teach and learn, to form cultures, even walking upright are frequently cited as examples. It's also a sacred Tenet of creationism that anything which might refute the sacred tenets of creationism must be ignore, hand-waved aside or misrepresented but never, ever acknowledged for what it is - a refutation of creationism.

So, we can expect one or more of those tactics for handling the cognitive dissonance that news that bumble bees can teach and learn and so have at least the basis for forming cumulative cultures. The news itself comes in the form of an open access research paper in Nature by a team Led by Dr Alice Bridges and Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary University of London.

The team showed that a complex, two-step task, which needed to be performed to receive a reward in the form of a sweet liquid could be learned by bees who were allowed to watch a trained 'demonstrator' perform the task. The bees not only learned how to perform the steps involved but that there was a reward to be had for doing so.

The 'demonstrators' had previously been trained by giving intermediate rewards as each stage was completed successfully, which were eventually withdrawn, leaving only the final reward. The experiment and its significance are explained in a Queen Mary University news release:
In a groundbreaking discovery by Queen Mary scientists, bumblebees have been shown to possess a previously unseen level of cognitive sophistication. A new study, published in Nature, reveals that these fuzzy pollinators can learn complex, multi-step tasks through social interaction, even if they cannot figure them out on their own.

This challenges the long-held belief that such advanced social learning is unique to humans, and even hints at the presence of key elements of cumulative culture in these insects.

Led by Dr Alice Bridges and Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary University of London, the research team designed a two-step puzzle box requiring bumblebees to perform two distinct actions in sequence to access a sweet reward at the end. Training bees to do this was no easy task, and bees had to be helped along by the addition of an extra reward along the way. This temporary reward was eventually taken away, and bees subsequently had to open the whole box before getting their treat.

Surprisingly, while individual bees struggled to solve the puzzle when starting from scratch, those allowed to observe a trained "demonstrator" bee readily learned the entire sequence – even the first step – while only getting a reward at the end.

This study demonstrates that bumblebees possess a level of social learning previously thought to be exclusive to humans. They can share and acquire behaviours that are beyond their individual cognitive capabilities: an ability thought to underpin the expansive, complex nature of human culture, and one previously thought to be exclusive to us.
Dr Bridges emphasises the novelty of this finding:

This is an extremely difficult task for bees. They had to learn two steps to get the reward, with the first behaviour in the sequence being unrewarded. We initially needed to train demonstrator bees with a temporary reward included there, highlighting the complexity. Yet, other bees learned the whole sequence from social observation of these trained bees, even without ever experiencing the first step's reward. But when we let other bees attempt to open the box without a trained bee to demonstrate the solution, they didn’t manage to open any at all.

Dr Alice D. Bridges, lead and co-corresponding author
School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences
Queen Mary University of London, London, UK.
Beyond individual learning, this research opens exciting possibilities for understanding the emergence of cumulative culture in the animal kingdom. Cumulative culture refers to the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills over generations, allowing for increasingly complex behaviours to develop. The bees' ability to learn such a complex task from a demonstrator suggests a potential pathway for cultural transmission and innovation beyond their individual learning capabilities. 

Professor Chittka further underscores the implications:

This challenges the traditional view that only humans can socially learn complex behaviour beyond individual learning. It raises the fascinating possibility that many of the most remarkable accomplishments of the social insects, like the nesting architectures of bees and wasps or the agricultural habits of aphid- and fungus-farming ants, may have initially spread by copying of clever innovators, before they eventually became part of the species-specific behaviour repertoires.

Professor Lars Chttka, co-corresponding author.
This groundbreaking research opens new avenues for understanding animal intelligence and the evolution of social learning. It challenges longstanding assumptions and paves the way for further exploration of the cognitive wonders hidden within the insect world, even hinting at the exciting possibility of cumulative culture amongst seemingly simple creatures.

More technical detail is given in the teams open access research paper in Nature:

Culture refers to behaviours that are socially learned and persist within a population over time. Increasing evidence suggests that animal culture can, like human culture, be cumulative: characterized by sequential innovations that build on previous ones1. However, human cumulative culture involves behaviours so complex that they lie beyond the capacity of any individual to independently discover during their lifetime1,2,3. To our knowledge, no study has so far demonstrated this phenomenon in an invertebrate. Here we show that bumblebees can learn from trained demonstrator bees to open a novel two-step puzzle box to obtain food rewards, even though they fail to do so independently. Experimenters were unable to train demonstrator bees to perform the unrewarded first step without providing a temporary reward linked to this action, which was removed during later stages of training. However, a third of naive observer bees learned to open the two-step box from these demonstrators, without ever being rewarded after the first step. This suggests that social learning might permit the acquisition of behaviours too complex to ‘re-innovate’ through individual learning. Furthermore, naive bees failed to open the box despite extended exposure for up to 24 days. This finding challenges a common opinion in the field: that the capacity to socially learn behaviours that cannot be innovated through individual trial and error is unique to humans.


Culture in animals can be broadly conceptualized as the sum of a population’s behavioural traditions, which, in turn, are defined as behaviours that are transmitted through social learning and that persist in a population over time4. Although culture was once thought to be exclusive to humans and a key explanation of our own evolutionary success, the existence of non-human cultures that change over time is no longer controversial. Changes in the songs of Savannah sparrows5 and humpback whales6,7,8 have been documented over decades. The sweet-potato-washing behaviour of Japanese macaques has also undergone several distinctive modifications since its inception at the hands of ‘Imo’, a juvenile female, in 19539. Imo’s initial behaviour involved dipping a potato in a freshwater stream and wiping sand off with her spare hand, but within a decade it had evolved to include repeated washing in seawater in between bites rather than in fresh water, potentially to enhance the flavour of the potato. By the 1980s, a range of variations had appeared among macaques, including stealing already-washed potatoes from conspecifics, and digging new pools in secluded areas to wash potatoes without being seen by scroungers9,10,11. Likewise, the ‘wide’, ‘narrow’ and ‘stepped’ designs of pandanus tools, which are fashioned from torn leaves by New Caledonian crows and used to fish grubs from logs, seem to have diverged from a single point of origin12. In this manner, cultural evolution can result in both the accumulation of novel traditions, and the accumulation of modifications to these traditions in turn. However, the limitations of non-human cultural evolution remain a subject of debate.

It is clearly true that humans are a uniquely encultured species. Almost everything we do relies on knowledge or technology that has taken many generations to build. No one human being could possibly manage, within their own lifetime, to split the atom by themselves from scratch. They could not even conceive of doing so without centuries of accumulated scientific knowledge. The existence of this so-called cumulative culture was thought to rely on the ‘ratchet’ concept, whereby traditions are retained in a population with sufficient fidelity to allow improvements to accumulate1,2,3. This was argued to require so-called higher-order forms of social learning, such as imitative copying13 or teaching14, which have, in turn, been argued to be exclusive to humans (although, see a review of imitative copying in animals15 for potential examples). But if we strip the definition of cumulative culture back to its bare bones, for a behavioural tradition to be considered cumulative, it must fulfil a set of core requirements1. In short, a beneficial innovation or modification to a behaviour must be socially transmitted among individuals of a population. This process may then occur repeatedly, leading to sequential improvements or elaborations. According to these criteria, there is evidence that some animals are capable of forming a cumulative culture in certain contexts and circumstances1,16,17. For example, when pairs of pigeons were tasked with making repeated flights home from a novel location, they found more efficient routes more quickly when members of these pairs were progressively swapped out, when compared with pairs of fixed composition or solo individuals16. This was thought to be due to ‘innovations’ made by the new individuals, resulting in incremental improvements in route efficiency. However, the end state of the behaviour in this case could, in theory, have been arrived at by a single individual1. It remains unclear whether modifications can accumulate to the point at which the final behaviour is too complex for any individual to innovate itself, but can still be acquired by that same individual through social learning from a knowledgeable conspecific. This threshold, often including the stipulation that re-innovation must be impossible within an individual’s own lifetime, is argued by some to represent a fundamental difference between human and non-human cognition3,13,18.

Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) are social insects that have been shown to be capable of acquiring complex, non-natural behaviours through social learning in a laboratory setting, such as string-pulling19 and ball-rolling to gain rewards20. In the latter case, they were even able to improve on the behaviour of their original demonstrator. More recently, when challenged with a two-option puzzle-box task and a paradigm allowing learning to diffuse across a population (a gold standard of cultural transmission experiments21, as used previously in wild great tits22), bumblebees were found to acquire and maintain arbitrary variants of this behaviour from trained demonstrators23. However, these previous investigations involved the acquisition of a behaviour that each bee could also have innovated independently. Indeed, some naive individuals were able to open the puzzle box, pull strings and roll balls without demonstrators19,20,23. Thus, to determine whether bumblebees could acquire a behaviour through social learning that they could not innovate independently, we developed a novel two-step puzzle box (Fig. 1a). This design was informed by a lockbox task that was developed to assess problem solving in Goffin’s cockatoos24. Here, cockatoos were challenged to open a box that was sealed with five inter-connected ‘locks’ that had to be opened sequentially, with no reward for opening any but the final lock. Our hypothesis was that this degree of temporal and spatial separation between performing the first step of the behaviour and the reward would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for a naive bumblebee to form a lasting association between this necessary initial action and the final reward. Even if a bee opened the two-step box independently through repeated, non-directed probing, as observed with our previous box23, if no association formed between the combination of the two pushing behaviours and the reward, this behaviour would be unlikely to be incorporated into an individual’s repertoire. If, however, a bee was able to learn this multi-step box-opening behaviour when exposed to a skilled demonstrator, this would suggest that bumblebees can acquire behaviours socially that lie beyond their capacity for individual innovation.
Fig. 1: Two-step puzzle-box design and experimental set-up.
a, Puzzle-box design. Box bases were 3D-printed to ensure consistency. The reward (50% w/w sucrose solution, placed on a yellow target) was inaccessible unless the red tab was pushed, rotating the lid anti-clockwise around a central axis, and the red tab could not move unless the blue tab was first pushed out of its path. See Supplementary Information for a full description of the box design elements. b, Experimental set-up. The flight arena was connected to the nest box with an acrylic tunnel, and flaps cut into the side allowed the removal and replacement of puzzle boxes during the experiment. The sides were lined with bristles to prevent bees escaping. c, Alternative action patterns for opening the box. The staggered-pushing technique is characterized by two distinct pushes (1, blue arrow and 2, red arrow), divided by either flying (green arrows) or walking in a loop around the inner side of the red tab (orange arrow). The squeezing technique is characterized by a single, unbroken movement, starting at the point at which the blue and red tabs meet and pushing through, squeezing between the outer side of the red tab and the outer shield, and making a tight turn to push against the red tab.
The two-step puzzle box (Fig. 1a) relied on the same principles as our previous single-step, two-option puzzle box23. To access a sucrose-solution reward, placed on a yellow target, a blue tab had to first be pushed out of the path of a red tab, which could then be pushed in turn to rotate a clear lid around a central axis. Once rotated far enough, the reward would be exposed beneath the red tab. A sample video of a trained demonstrator opening the two-step box is available (Supplementary Video 1). Our experiments were conducted in a specially constructed flight arena, attached to a colony’s nest box, in which all bees that were not currently undergoing training or testing were confined (Fig. 1b).

In our previous study, several bees successfully learned to open the two-option, single-step box during control population experiments, which were conducted in the absence of a trained demonstrator across 6–12 days23. Thus, to determine whether the two-step box could be opened by individual bees starting from scratch, we sought to conduct a similar experiment. Two colonies (C1 and C2) took part in these control population experiments for 12 days, and one colony (C3) for 24 days. In brief, on 12 or 24 consecutive days, bees were exposed to open two-step puzzle boxes for 30 min pre-training and then to closed boxes for 3 h (meaning that colonies C1 and 2 were exposed to closed boxes for 36 h total, and colony C3 for 72 h total). No trained demonstrator was added to any group. On each day, bees foraged willingly during the pre-training, but no boxes were opened in either colony during the experiment. Although some bees were observed to probe around the components of the closed boxes with their proboscises, particularly in the early population-experiment sessions, this behaviour generally decreased as the experiment progressed. A single blue tab was opened in full in colony C1, but this behaviour was neither expanded on nor repeated.

Learning to open the two-step box was not trivial for our demonstrators, with the finalized training protocol taking around two days for them to complete (compared with several hours for our previous two-option, single-step box23). Developing a training protocol was also challenging. Bees readily learned to push the rewarded red tab, but not the unrewarded blue tab, which they would not manipulate at all. Instead, they would repeatedly push against the blocked red tab before giving up. This necessitated the addition of a temporary yellow target and reward beneath the blue tab, which, in turn, required the addition of the extended tail section (as seen in Fig. 1a), because during later stages of training this temporary target had to be removed and its absence concealed. This had to be done gradually and in combination with an increased reward on the final target, because bees quickly lost their motivation to open any more boxes otherwise. Frequently, reluctant bees had to be coaxed back to participation by providing them with fully opened lids that they did not need to push at all. In short, bees seemed generally unwilling to perform actions that were not directly linked to a reward, or that were no longer being rewarded. Notably, when opening two-step boxes after learning, demonstrators frequently pushed against the red tab before attempting to push the blue, even though they were able to perform the complete behaviour (and subsequently did so). The combination of having to move away from a visible reward and take a non-direct route, and the lack of any reward in exchange for this behaviour, suggests that two-step box-opening would be very difficult, if not impossible, for a naive bumblebee to discover and learn for itself—in line with the results of the control population experiment.
And yet another 'uniquely human' characteristic which creationists claim proves humans are a special creation unrelated to any other life on Earth turns out to be shared by another unrelated animal, in this case a common buff-tailed bumble bee, Bombus terrestris. Given how distantly related humans and bumble bees are, this is not likely to be something both have inherited from a common ancestor, so the most vicarious explanation is that it has evolved separately in both species.

Since learning from others is the fundamental basis of cultural development, it would be interesting to see whether different populations of this bumblebee species have evolved different cultures, the way different populations of humans and chimpanzees have.

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