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Can Bees Learn?

Can Bees Learn?

They can learn faces, add and subtract and even process the concept of zero.

For all our obvious differences, humans and honeybees share some common threads within the fabric of life.

We are both social species. While humans speak and write to communicate, honeybees dance to one another; waggling their bodies for specific durations at angles that indicate where the best pockets of nectar or pollen are to be found outside the hustle and bustle of the nest.

But only forager bees – the eldest of several types of Honey Bee castes – do this. Just like in human populations, the honeybee colony is divided into different sectors of work. There are cleaners, nurses, security guards, not to mention collection bees whose sole job is to cache nectar in comb.

Training Bees To Learn

In a new study published in the Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy, they used bees as a model to understand how different individuals acquire information.

Do you remember

your college psychology class and how Pavlov trained dogs to salivate to a bell? Using animal models to understand learning has a lon

g and proud history. Pavlov famously trained dogs to associate a sound with a food reward. Eventually Pavlov demonstrated that the dogs began to salivate at the sound.

Bees are surprisingly good learners and

recent research shows individuals can learn faces, add and subtract and even process the concept of zero. Bees learn complex tasks through trial and error, where a reward of sugar water is provided for correctly solving a problem.

Teaching Bees Aritthmetic

A honeybee with a white identification mark learns to discriminate between 3 and 5 item displays that each present the same overall surface area.

The researchers were very interested to discover whether all individual bees would learn complex tasks in a similar way. Would each individual show similar learning performance throughout training, or would individuals demonstrate different learning strategies?

One foundation math skill we all learn at about pre-school age is how to add and subtract numbers. Arithmetic is not a trivial task. It requires long-term memory of rules associated with particular symbols like plus (+) or minus (–), as well as short-term memory of what particular numbers to manipulate in a given instance.

When they trained bees to add and subtract, we evaluated how many trials it took each bee to acquire the task, and summarised the data examining how individuals learn in a video seen below.

They were surprised to see that all bees did no

t learn the task at the same stage of training. Instead, different individuals acquired the capacity to solve the problem after a different number of trials.

There was no common learning stage throughout the trials where bees achieved success. Rather the task required bees to try different strategies to see what worked. In particular, the opportunity to learn from mistakes was critical to enabling the bees to learn maths-based problems.


This finding suggests that when brains have to learn multi-stage problems involving different types of memory, an opportunity for exploratory behaviour is what nature prefers.

Humans and bees last shared a common ancestor about 600 million years ago. However, we share a large number of genes and it is likely we have some similarities in how we process information.

We know that bees and humans have a common way of processing numbers from one to four, for instance, suggesting that learning processes may be linked to evolutionary conserved mechanisms. So bees’ improved results when learning maths problems in an individual exploratory fashion suggests this may be how humans too are wired to acquire new skills.

Why Do Plants Produce Nectar? Plants had to solve a problem: they needed to find ways to spread their genetic material. Flying pollinators were nature's solution. Nectar is made as a reward for pollinators. Bee Quiz Take this quick quiz and see how much you know about bees—our favorite essential pollinators working around the world. This quiz is intended for fun, in a random-facts-can-be-cool kind of way. Bee Garden Plan Spring begins and bees are hungry and on the wing looking for food. From the moment emerge in spring to the time that they hibernate or migrate in the fall, pollinators need to eat.

This is article is being shared, the original can be found on the Wisconsin Pollinators website.

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