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Amazing Experiment Shows Bumblebees ‘Play’ With Objects

The very first study shows that bumblebees “play”. The experiment, in which bumblebees rolled wooden balls, was the first time object-playing behavior had been demonstrated in an insect.

Bumblebees play, according to a new study published in the journal animal behavior. This is the first time that object-playing behavior has been demonstrated in an insect, adding to growing evidence that bees can experience positive “feelings”.

Many experiments were set up by a team of researchers, led by scientists from Queen Mary University of London, to test their hypothesis. They showed that bumblebees go out of their way to repeatedly roll wooden balls despite there being no apparent incentive to do so.

According to the results, younger bees rolled more balls than older bees. These results reflected the human behavior of young children and other juvenile mammals and birds being the most playful. Additionally, the male bees rolled the balls longer than their female counterparts.

Forty-five bumblebees were tracked in the study as they walked through an arena. They had the option of walking on a clear path to reach a feeding area or deviating from this path to areas with wooden balls. Individual bees rolled balls between 1 and an impressive 117 times during the experiment. The repeated behavior suggested that ball rolling was rewarding.

This was confirmed by another experiment where a different set of 42 bees were given access to two colored chambers. One chamber still contained moving balls, while the other had no objects. When later tested and given a choice between the two chambers, neither containing balls at the time, the bees showed a preference for the color of the chamber previously associated with wooden balls. The set-up of the experiments removed any idea that the bees were moving the balls for a greater purpose than play. The rolling balls did not contribute to survival strategies, such as gaining food, clearing clutter, or mate and were performed under stress-free conditions.

The study builds on previous work from the same Queen Mary lab that showed bumblebees can be trained to score goals by rolling balls to targets in exchange for a sugary food reward. In the previous experiment, the team observed bumblebees rolling balls outside of the experiment, without getting a food reward. The new research demonstrated that bees rolled balls repeatedly without being trained and given food to do so – it was voluntary and spontaneous – therefore similar to play behavior as seen in other animals.

Samadi Galpayage, first author of the study and a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London, said: “It is certainly breathtaking, sometimes amusing, to see bumblebees showing something like a game. They approach and manipulate these ” toys” again and again. This shows, once again, that despite their small size and tiny brains, they are more than just little robotic beings. They can actually experience some sort of positive emotional states, albeit rudimentary, like other larger or less fluffy animals do. This type of discovery has implications for our understanding of insect susceptibility and well-being, and will hopefully encourage us to increasingly respect and protect life on Earth.

Professor Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioral Ecology at Queen Mary University of London, Director of the Laboratory and author of the recent book ‘The Mind of a Bee’, said: “This research clearly indicates that the insect mind is far more sophisticated than we might imagine. There are plenty of animals that just play for fun, but most examples come from young mammals and birds.

“We are producing ever-increasing amounts of evidence supporting the need to do everything we can to protect insects that are millions of miles away from the mindless, insensitive creatures they are traditionally thought to be.”

Reference: “Do bumblebees play?” by Hiruni Samadi Galpayage Dona, Cwyn Solvi, Amelia Kowalewska, Kaarle Mäkelä, HaDi MaBouDi and Lars Chittka, October 19, 2022, animal behavior.
DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2022.08.013

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