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"Insects Can Solve Problems, They Can Learn"



(p. D6) Never underestimate the power of the bee brain.

In the latest triumph for one of humanity's favorite insects, bumblebees learned how to push a ball to the center of a platform for a sugary treat.

That may not make them a threat on the chess board, but soccer or even Skee-Ball might be within their intellectual grasp -- if it were scaled down in size, of course.

The new research finding is one more reason that scientists who study insects, of all sorts, would like to point out that just because a brain is small, doesn't mean it is simple.

Clint Perry, one of the bumblebee trainers at Queen Mary University of London, and a confirmed small brain partisan, said, "I've actually been asked if bees have brains."

In fact, a number of recent experiments have shown that "insects can solve problems, they can learn," he said. And scientists have yet to define the limits of insects' mental abilities.


. . .


The task of pushing a little ball to the center of a platform was completely arbitrary. Bees don't do anything like this in nature, where they seek out flowers for nectar and pollen. So it was a brand new behavior demanding some kind of general ability to learn.

The way the bees learned was important, too. They were pre-trained to expect a treat in the center of a platform. But having to push a ball to the center to get the treat was something they hadn't seen.

Then the researchers tried several ways of teaching the bees what to do. The bees learned best by watching a fellow bee perform the feat. After that kind of observation, 10 of 10 bees solved the problem on the first try. On later tries, they continued to improve, taking less time.



For the full story, see:

Gorman, James. "SCIENCETAKE; The Power of the Bumblebee Brain." The New York Times (Weds., FEB. 28, 2017): D6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 23 [sic], 2017, and has the title "SCIENCETAKE; Bumblebees Demonstrate the Power of Insect Brains.")






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