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Forget The Flea Circus, Bees Can Do All The Tricks

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When we think of animals doing tricks, we’re likely to think of dogs








or maybe even a parrot








But you probably didn’t think of bumblebees. However, check out these videos of these bumblebees performing some seemingly impressive feats:


How did these bees learn to do these things? Well, just like dogs or parrots, they were essentially trained through a number of small steps. So, for example, if a bee was presented with a giant ball covering a reward (sugar water), she didn’t know what to do immediately. However, if she was first trained where the sugar water was with no ball, and then had to move a ball (small at first, and then increasingly larger), she could learn to move the largest  ball of all to get to the sugar water.

In the second video, the bees push up and move caps to reach the sugar water (the best thing in the world to bees). Again, the bees were trained to do this; it wasn’t something they could do right off the bat. In this case, what they do is known as scaffold learning. By being trained to do a bit of a task, they are able to complete a task that otherwise would be too difficult for them. ‘Scaffold’, as you might expect, means building upon previous learning. For example, a dog might be able to do a series of seemingly complex behaviours (say, dancing on its hind legs, a little pirouette and maybe an ‘I love you’ call before getting a treat). At first glance, this dog might look like a genius compared to another dog that can only raise a somewhat pathetic paw. However, it’s likely that the first dog isn’t actually any ‘smarter’, but has just been trained in a number of small steps to reach the point it’s got to.

This recent study with the bumblebees shows that these little animals are indeed capable of building upon what they’ve learned already to perform some seemingly complex behaviours, just like humans, dogs, and other ‘smart’ animals.


Photo Credits

Dog trick: Joe Sullivan

parrot: Valerie Burtchett

Videos of bees: Hamida Mirwan



Mirwan, H. B., & Kevan, P. G. (2014). Problem solving by worker bumblebees Bombus impatiens (Hymenoptera: Apoidea). Animal cognition, 1-9.

Felicity Muth About the Author: Felicity Muth is an early-career researcher with a PhD in animal cognition. Follow on Twitter @notbadscience.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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