Bees can be trained to play football, despite their tiny brains

People who say that footballers aren’t intelligent have just been provided with a winning argument: a new study has shown that bees can be taught to play football.

The experiments, carried out by Clint Perry and Olli Loukola of Queen Mary University of London, showed that bees can be trained to roll a ball into a goal by offering them a reward of sugar water when they succeed.

The bees learned this extraordinary trick by copying an ‘artificial bee’: a black and yellow striped ball on a transparent stick.

“While mastering this unnatural task was impressive”, Perry and Loukola write, “we were curious to know how the bees were actually learning to solve it.”

To investigate this, they tested three new groups of bees, with each group learning in a different way: by copying a previously-trained bee; by watching the ball move in response to a hidden magnet; and by being left to solve the problem themselves.

The bees watching their peers were most successful, implying that they can share knowledge well outside of their natural behaviour.

Even more remarkable is that, even when the bees were given a choice of balls and were taught to roll the furthest into the goal, they often chose the nearest one; this implies that they could improve upon what they learned.

The researchers describe this as “an unprecedented amount of cognitive flexibility in an animal with such a small brain.”

Previous studies have shown that bees can solve problems in new environments; for example, in a 2016 study, bees learned to retrieve a sugary reward by pulling a string.

However, these experiments all mimicked the bees’ innate behaviours as some flowers require bees to pull on something in order to reach the nectar.

Since this test compels the bees to use an object that is not directly connected to the reward, Luokola argues that this constitutes tool use.

Once thought to be unique to humans, tool use has become synonymous with high intelligence in animals, and is mainly detected in animals such as primates, elephants, and crows.

Since bees have a brain the size of a poppyseed, this discovery could suggest that perhaps tool use is not such a high-level skill as we have always considered it to be.

Image: Maciej A. Czyzewski

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