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Bumblebees can learn from each other – but why not?


Who else are they going to learn from? At BigThink:

We know that chimpanzees are capable of social learning. They craft “probing” tools from twigs to fish tasty termites out of holes in logs, and teach their young to do the same. Moreover, some dolphins utilize and pass on a behavior called shelling, in which they chase fish into the empty shells of giant gastropods, then bring the shells to the surface where they drain out the water and shake the fish into their open mouths. (Didn’t their mothers ever teach them not to play with their food?)

While bumblebees of the species Bombus terrestris aren’t quite capable of those advanced eating techniques, a team of scientists hailing from various institutions in the United Kingdom did manage to teach a few brainy bees to solve a basic puzzle to attain a sugary reward. They then released these learned bumbles into their colonies, where, lo and behold, the behavior spread. – Ross Pomeroy (Marcy 7, 2023)

Setting aside the riff on “advanced eating techniques (insects have different eating parts in any event), the big takeaway here is that chimps and dolphins are not much smarter than bumblebees. Humans are still the Big Exception.

You may also wish to read: Spiders are smart. Be glad they are small. Recent research has shed light on the intriguing strategies that spiders use to deceive other spiders — and prey in general. Invertebrates like spiders and octopuses can be smarter than we used to think and we are only beginning to discover their many strategies.


In what ways are spiders intelligent? The ability to perform simple cognitive functions does not appear to depend on the vertebrate brain as such. Recent claims of data fabrication against Jonathan Pruitt shouldn’t detract from genuine new finds re spider intelligence.

Good points, Pyrrhomaniac at 1. Of course, the authors would say that the remarkable thing is that bumblebees turned out to be capable of alteration of behavior or of individual cognitive behavior at all. News
It's an interesting study, but seems to miss out on a really important variable. Chimpanzees and dolphins figured out for themselves how to manipulate their environments to increase resource extraction, and then other animals learned similar behaviors by observation. (Importantly, not by imitation, so far as we know.) The bees were trained on this task and then the behavior spread through the population. By themselves, bees are locked into a fixed set of behavioral routines -- they do not explore their environments and figure out new paths of resource extraction. So the fact that social learning can happen in bees is interesting, but it doesn't collapse the massive differences between social insects and social mammals. PyrrhoManiac1

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