[ExI] Bees do a lot with tiny brains

BillK pharos at gmail.com
Thu Jan 26 12:41:54 UTC 2017

It is tempting to assume that animals need large brains to perform
complicated tasks, but the immense skills of some insects and worms
suggest small brains are surprisingly powerful

By Sarah Hewitt   24 January 2017



A bumblebee flies up to inspect a flower, looking for a taste of
nectar. It buzzes around a bit and realises that something is
different. The bee can see the flower but cannot reach it.

That is because the "flower" – actually a blue plastic disc with sugar
water in the centre – is sitting underneath a sheet of transparent
plastic. Luckily for the bee, there is a string attached to the
flower. All it has to do is pull on the string, haul out the flower,
and sip its reward. *So it does*.

"When we first started the string-pulling experiments, it was almost a
joke," says Lars Chittka of the Queen Mary University of London in the
UK. "I laughed my head off when I first saw it. It just looked very

But there is more. Once one bee figured out what it needed to do to
access the artificial flower, other bees that were looking on learned
the string-tugging trick themselves. The technique even outlasted the
original successful bee. It became part of the colony's skillset,
transmitted from bee to bee after the first string-pulling bee had

"I just couldn't believe what I was seeing," says Chittka.

Bees can also learn to recognise colours and patterns. Can they find
their way back home from several kilometres away? Not a problem.
Recognise human faces? That too. Can bees use tools? Well, that is
what Chittka wants to answer next.

Chittka's lab did an experiment in the 1990s in which they asked
whether bees can count. They can.

"At that point, we began to scratch our heads a little bit," Chittka
says. "How much cleverness can you stick into a tiny brain?"


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