RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to talk about bumblebees now. Their brains may be the size of sesame seeds, but apparently they're really nimble thinkers. Who knew? Research has shown they can count. They can make decisions by weighing uncertainty. And scientists writing in the journal Science now say bees can learn complicated tasks just by observing a demonstration. Here's NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Clint Perry is interested in probing the limits of animal intelligence.
CLINT PERRY: Yeah, I want to know how does the brain do stuff. How does it behave? How does it make decisions? How does it keep memory?
BICHELL: And how big does a brain need to be in order to do all those things? Perry is a cognitive biologist at Queen Mary University of London. And recently, he's been focused on how bees think. He does this by designing little puzzles for the bees to solve.
PERRY: Test them on something that is far removed from anything that they would see in their normal lives.
BICHELL: To see if bees can learn a complicated new skill just by observing it.
PERRY: Essentially, their first experiment was, can bees learn to roll a ball?
BICHELL: Perry and his colleagues built a platform with a ball sitting in the middle of it. If a bee went up to the ball, it would find that it could access a reward, sugar water. One by one, bumblebees walked onto the platform, explored a bit and then slurped up the sugar water in the middle.
PERRY: Then what we did is move the ball away, near the edge. The bees came out, looked at the center, didn't have reward, went to the ball, didn't have reward. They had to figure out that they needed to move the ball from the edge to the center, and then they'd get reward.
BICHELL: If a bee couldn't figure it out, the researchers would demonstrate using a puppet, a plastic bee on a stick, to scoot the ball from the edge of the platform to the center.
PERRY: And bees that saw this demonstration learned very quickly how to solve the task. They started rolling the ball back into the center. They got better over time.
BICHELL: In a second experiment, the researchers found that bees that were able to watch another live bee do the trick first learned even faster. Some even found ways to get the sugar water more quickly.
PERRY: It wasn't monkey see, monkey do. They improved on the strategy that they saw.
BICHELL: How can bees do all this? Well, Perry says, it's not just about the number of neurons in a brain. It's the connections between them. Research is showing more and more that animals, including tiny insects, can learn quickly if their brains are wired right. And with enough time, a bumblebee could totally learn to play fetch. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
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