Bee Research, From The Mouths Of Babes

This week, the journal Biology Letters published online a study by a group of 8- to 10-year-olds, about the ability of bumblebees to recognize through colors and patterns which flowers to forage from. NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Beau and Misha Lotto about the study. Beau is a neuroscientist at University College London and one of the adults who helped with the study. Misha is one of the students at Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England, who carried out the research.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The British journal Biology Letters published an extraordinary article online this week. It's about an experiment with bees. It shows that bumblebees can use a combination of color and spatial relationships in deciding which color flower to forage from.

And to prove that, the researchers designed a Plexiglas bee arena - a cube one meter-by one meter-by one meter. They cut 16 holes through which they could display different colors of light, and some of which could offer the foraging bumblebee the prospect of sugar.

The bees figured out which color holes, in which positions were worth going to.

What's most remarkable about this research is the researchers. They are a group of eight to 10-year-old English primary school students, from Blackawton Primary School in Devon. They obviously had a lot of guidance from adults.

And we are joined now by one of the students, 10-year-old Misha Lotto and his father, Beau Lotto, who is a neuroscientist at University College London.

First, Misha. Now, we think that you and your schoolmates may be the youngest authors of a peer-reviewed scientific journal article. How much did your dad and your teachers have to do with this? And how much was the children's work?

Mr. MISHA LOTTO (Student, Blackawton Primary School): Well, dad and the teachers, they just let us know they were there. And that if anything gone wrong, they would be there to help us.

SIEGEL: I read something. You said that this changed your view of science completely.

Mr. LOTTO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: You used to think science was like math.

Mr. LOTTO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: What did you think of math?

Mr. LOTTO: Boring.

SIEGEL: Boring?

Mr. LOTTO: Yeah, I thought math was boring. It's just adding up and taking away. And now I think that science as really fun.

SIEGEL: Now, was what you discovered about the bees, was it surprising to you?

Mr. LOTTO: Yeah, really surprising.

SIEGEL: How so?

Mr. LOTTO: Just 'cause bees are small and it doesn't mean they're any less clever than us.

SIEGEL: They're as clever as we are, you figure.

Mr. LOTTO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Yes, from the discussion portion of your journal article, you and your fellow researchers wrote this: This experiment is important because, as far as we know, no one in history - including adults - has done this experiment before. It tells us that bees can learn to solve puzzles. And if we are lucky, we'll be able to get them to do Sudoku in a couple of years' time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOTTO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: That could be beyond the capacity of the bees, I think - the Sudoku.

Mr. LOTTO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, could you put your dad on the phone, Misha?

Mr. LOTTO: Okay, thank you.

SIEGEL: Thank you.

Dr. BEAU LOTTO (Neuroscientist, University College, London): All right.

SIEGEL: Beau Lotto, let's set aside what we've learned about bumblebees here. What have we learned about eight, nine and 10 year olds in this work?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LOTTO: Well, may be we've learned what we've always known, which is that they're instinctively incredibly curious and they ask questions that are relevant to scientists.

SIEGEL: Every once in a while in my job, I have to read a scientific journal article for an interview. And it's often extremely difficult just to read it -to read in the language of scientific journals. This is not written in that language. This is written in kids-speak and it's actually quite refreshing.

Dr. LOTTO: Yeah, and I've read it several times now. And every time I read it, it brings a smile to my face. I mean a science paper that starts off: Once upon a time, it's not the most typical.

SIEGEL: Yes. Once upon a time - in the introduction - it's says: People think that humans are the smartest of animals, and most people do not think about other animals as being smart - or at least think that they're not as smart as humans. Knowing that other animals are as smart us means we can appreciate them more, which could also help us to help them.

Dr. LOTTO: Yeah. This introduction, though it lacks references and therefore lacked scientific historical context for why the study is significant - it nonetheless preserves what's true about an introduction, which is why the kids in this case asked the question that they asked. The basis for that question was not what had been done before, but what they found interesting in the world, what they found interesting about perception, what they found interesting about the perception of bumblebees.

SIEGEL: Well, Beau Lotto, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Dr. LOTTO: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And perhaps if Misha is still there, could he come on the phone for just a second?

Mr. LOTTO: Hello.

SIEGEL: I was just curious. Have you decided that you want to be a scientist, as a result of this? Or no?

Mr. LOTTO: Yeah, I'm intrigued. And yeah, I might want to be a scientist when I grow up.

SIEGEL: Well, good luck to you. And congratulations.

Mr. LOTTO: Okay, thank you.

SIEGEL: That's 10-year-old Misha Lotto. And we also heard from his dad, neuroscientist Beau Lotto, describing a scientific journal article that Misha Lotto and his classmates published in the journal Biology Letters this week.

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