Bees Are Brainier than You Think

Despite having brains that are .0002% the size of human brains, bees are able to learn skills and teach these skills to others.

According to a new study in the journal PLOS Biology, British researchers were able to train 23 bees out of a group of 40 to pull strings that were attached to tiny artificial flower discs containing food bees like to eat, according to articles on Reuters.com and Smithsonian.com.

These “trainer” bees were then mingled with other bees who hadn’t seen the string trick; after watching the trainers, 60 percent of those bees learned to pull the string themselves. In a group of bees without trainers, only two out of 110 performed the task.

When one trained bee was added to “three colonies of untrained bees … about 50 percent of each colony figured out how to pull the string” once they were paired up with a trained bee, the Smithsonian article noted. Even when “the trainers died, the ability to pull on the strings continued to spread throughout the colonies.”

According to the researchers, “more sophisticated forms of social learning … specific to human culture may well have evolved from simpler forms of learning and cognition.” In other words, even the tiny brains of bees can teach humans about evolution.

Watch a video of the experiment.

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Bee Pledge of Allegiance

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Two months ago we wrote about an initiative launched by the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, Calif., to create 3,600 square feet of bee habitat where kids and their families could observe the lives of honeybees and other pollinators.

This update came in yesterday from Patricia Narciso, the Museum’s director of development and marketing:

“During EY Connect Day at Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, 50 employee volunteers from EY (formerly Ernst & Young) helped 57 fourth graders from a nearby school to create art installations using natural and recycled materials. Everyone learned an original Bee Pledge from our environmental educator, Biret Adden:

‘Bees bring us flowers (hands “bloom’ like a flower)
Bees make our lunch (hands in front)
I pledge to protect them  (right hand over heart)
and love them a bunch! (left hand crosses over right)’

With the goal of educating the next generation of environmental stewards, adults and kids worked together to craft bee artwork from recycled cans, build bee baths from upcycled bakeware, and learn from Children’s Discovery Museum environmental educators about risks to favorite foods due to dwindling bee populations. The artwork inspires awareness about bee conservation and the environmental education space under construction at Children’s Discovery Museum.”

Good News, Twice, for Bees

It’s been a busier than usual week for bees. According to an October 3 story in the Washington Post, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to put seven species of yellow-faced bees, all native to Hawaii, on the Endangered Species List – the first time bees have been so designated.

These bees – whose name derives from their distinctive yellow-white facial coloration — pollinate many of Hawaii’s trees and shrubs, and are key to maintaining the health and diversity of the state’s forests.

Also on October 3, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution declaring the state’s largest metropolis a “Bee Friendly City,” according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The resolution was designed “to encourage and promote urban beekeeping and to raise awareness of the importance of bees to our environment.” More than 200 apiaries are registered in Philadelphia County, and the city itself is where the “removable-frame hive was invented in 1851,” the Inquirer reports.

Back to Hawaii and the Endangered Species List. According to the Post, it took almost a decade to achieve the Endangered Species designation. Karl Magnacca, a Hawaii-based entomologist who helped research the bees for the Oregon-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, told the Associated Press that the designation “is excellent news for these bees, but there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that [they] thrive.”

The article also notes that while honeybees get most of the bee-centered publicity because of their pollination efforts, some scientists contend that wild bees deserve just as much attention, “even if fewer wild species are responsible for crop pollination.” Native bees also help maintain habitats for other species.

Interesting fact: The Xerces Society is named after the Xerces blue butterfly, “the first butterfly known to go extinct in North America as a result of human activities,” Magnacca told the AP, the Post reported.

Butterflies are pollinators, too. We should all hope that bees — honeybees, bumblebees, native bees, all bees — don’t suffer the same fate as the Xerces blue.

 

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