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Bumble Bees Learn Trick, Surprise Researchers

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Ever wondered how tiny a bumble bee’s brain is? Imagine a sesame seed clinging to a burger bun, reports the Washington Post—in other words, it’s about 0.0002% the volume of a human brain, as calculated by Science. But that doesn’t mean you can’t teach a bee a new trick, as behavioral ecologist Clint Perry tells the paper: “Bees have some amazing cognitive abilities,” including counting up to at least four. And now he and colleagues from Queen Mary University of London are reporting in the journal Plos Biology that bees can not only learn an entirely new skill to get food but also pass on their knowledge, which is one of the basic aspects of culture.

In their study, researchers placed blue discs with sugar water beneath a clear plastic table, just out of reach, but affixed a string to each one that, if tugged, would move it within reach. Out of 110 bumble bees individually introduced to the task, some tugged at the strings before eventually quitting, and only two sorted out how to pull on the string to get the sugar water. However, when bees got to watch the ones retrieving the sugar water, more than 60% of them were able to pull the string when it was their turn. One of the researchers tells Science that, as exciting as the findings are, the explanation isn’t necessarily that bees are smart, but that “culturelike phenomena might actually be based on relatively simple mechanisms.”

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