If you ask most people around the world their true desires, their answers will be the same: health, happiness, and to ride around in a chariot pulled by thousands of bees. Thankfully, scientists have brought us closer to that last desire this week — they’ve successfully taught a group of the tiny insects to pull on string in exchange for a reward. Even better, they don’t need to train the bees individually, discovering that when allowed to observe their compatriots, bees from another group could pick up the skill without human input.
The researchers, from Queen Mary University of London, managed to teach 23 out of 40 bees from the original group to pull the strings to access food on a disc that was hidden under a plastic cover. Bees from another group were then introduced to the testing chamber at the same time as their fast-learning friends, one at a time, so they could observe how to yank their own treats.
Impressively, 60 percent of the new bees were able to replicate the behavior without any human training. As a final step, scientists reintroduced the string-pulling bees back into regular colonies, where the knowledge that pulling a string could equal food eventually propagated among the majority of the colony’s worker bees. As a contrast, scientists tested another group of untrained bees, discovering that of 110 insects, only two could solve the problem.
The study, published in PLOS Biology this week, shows how animals may be able to pass on skills in a way we previously thought was largely exclusive to humans. “Cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans,” study co-author Clint Perry said. Let’s hope, then, that the bees don’t figure out that humans keep accidentally killing them — they might tell all their friends.