Olli Loukola, the study's lead author, told Seeker that earlier research found that honeybees and bumblebees can be trained to push a cap and other objects, while other studies had shown that stingless bees can rotate levers and that bumblebees can purposefully pull a string in order to receive a reward.
"Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioral flexibility and only simple learning abilities," Chittka said. "In some cases, a bigger brain might just support more storage capacity - equivalent to a bigger hard drive - rather than more advanced computing capacities, equivalent to a better processor."
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Nevertheless, humans obviously accomplish a wider variety of complex tasks, so it has long been assumed that our large brains are a prerequisite for such abilities. Loukola and his team aren't so sure.
It could be that "subtle tweaks of existing neural circuitry," as Chittka put it, could lead to advanced cognition. The environment in which our ancestors evolved also must have played a role.
"Humans might just be unique in that somewhere early in hominid [early human] evolution and tool manufacture, they themselves created an environment with selection pressures towards the further refinement of such abilities," Chittka said.
The takeaway is that the learning potential of bumblebees and the roughly 30,000 different species of bees around the world could be much higher than we think. Bees are already being trained to sniff out drugs, explosives and more.
Top Photo: Series of images showing how a bumblebee successfully moved a ball to a target in order to obtain a food reward. Credit: O.J. Loukola et al, Science 2017