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Tigra Scientifica: Bees show impressive behavioral flexibility while learning to score a goal

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Bees are just insects, they can’t learn new behaviors, right? A bee’s brain is smaller than a sesame seed, how could they possibly demonstrate any level of intelligence? However, bees have demonstrated the ability to perform complex tasks that are close to their natural behavior, and new research has suggested that bees can take their cognitive ability to the next level.
A new study published in Science uncovers more about the surprising abilities of the ordinary bee. The study reveals that bees do in fact have the ability to learn a complex behavior that is significantly different from any behavior they have previously known.                                
The joint lead author, Olli J. Loukola, and colleagues placed bees one at a time into a “court” and presented them with a ball. In the center of the court was a “goal,” a circular indention into which the ball could be rolled. They then used a fake model bee on a stick to push the ball into the goal for a sugar water treat, effectively teaching the real bee to do the same. Not only did the bee learn to score a goal by itself, it actually taught others to score a goal when introduced to the court.
Once ten bees had learned to associate scoring a goal with the sugary reward, the researchers timed the ten bees in a series of ten trials per bee.  Each of the ten bees exhibited significant improvement in time with each trial.
Shockingly enough, the findings did not end there. Next, the researchers placed each of the bees in another court with three balls at various distances from the goal in the center. The bees that had already been trained to push the ball into the goal demonstrated surprising behavioral flexibility.
Despite a different layout and number of balls in the court, the bees were able to recognize the task at hand and push a ball into the goal. Furthermore, most of the bees chose to use the ball with the closest location to the goal, displaying their true behavioral flexibility.
This research shows that bees can use memory to enhance performance of a task. Most surprisingly, bees can learn to perform tasks they do not have formed adaptations for.
Before Loukola’s work, people thought bees could only perform behaviors they had evolved for. This study could lead to more research on the cognitive abilities of bees and uncover a newfound need to discover that which is unknown about the capabilities of a bee.

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