In some scientific circles, it’s a foregone conclusion that bumblebees are heading for extinction. Pesticides in particular are one of the major causes for accelerating their demise. The downside if their extinction were to happen, the earth’s functioning ecosystem would collapse.
However, another camp believes that bumblebees are equipped with developed brains that might actually be able to figure out how to adapt to new food sources, to avoid them from dying off.
I’m personally rooting for the ‘developed brain’ folks to be right with their predictions. Here's the story.
Once, most insects [bumblebees included] were thought to be nature’s automatons. Scientists were of the opinion, bees were hardwired to take on a limited number of functional acts. They also believed they were ruled solely by genetic instincts [handed down from generation to generation], versus a brain capable of solving problems.
If you were of that thinking, you might be surprised to learn about researchers who now come with the job title: “bumblebee trainers.”
Clint Perry is one such trainer who is working on specialized bee training at Queen Mary University of London. He’s been tasked to find out if bees have problem-solving brains.
To that end, Perry supports the theory that “insects can solve problems” and “they can learn.”
In an experiment, he actually trained bees to do something removed from their natural behavior in the wild. The experiment devised was to see if bees could push a ball to the center of a platform, if they were incentivized to do so.
The problem-solving buzz . . .
Since bees didn’t do anything similar to Perry’s task in nature, this was a brand new behavior that focused solely on the bees ability to learn. As a result, what these bees learned was a breakthrough.
At the onset of the trial, they were pre-trained to expect a treat in the center of a platform. But in order to do so, they needed to push a ball to the center of the playing field to retrieve their reward. This was the piece of the puzzle that hadn't been seen previously with bees in their natural habitat.
The also learned from each other. When watching a fellow bee perform this feat, 10 out of 10 bees solved the problem on the first try. On later tries, they continued to improve, taking less and less time with each successive attempt. On the flip-side, only two out of 100 were successful when they were presented with the problem, without any pre-training.
What is remarkable about this scientific breakthrough was the social learning involved. Heretofore researchers only witnessed this type of specialized learning, with animals who possessed much larger brains.
Small Brains, Big Minds
So the question that remains is how can bees who have such small brains and miniature nervous systems manage such advanced behavior?
With this mind, is this not another reason to save bumblebees from extinction? Or will these smart little creatures be able to figure their own way out the quagmire? Will they be able to seek out other food sources — devoid of pesticides — so they can protect themselves and their colonies, while growing their numbers?
Bees pollinate more than $15 billion worth of crops in the US every year, and the agriculture industry employs 1.4 billion people worldwide. A 2016 study found that 44.1 percent of all honeybee colonies in the US had died out. In February, 2016 the United Nations estimated that 40 percent of pollinators — including bees and butterflies — are at risk of extinction.
While the odds seemed to be stacked against them, based on this new research, I’m rooting for these savvy whizzz kids to start buzzing up some new ideas, with some life-saving plans for their own future. How about you?