Slow-learning bees as successful as smart ones, and live longer: Study

All of the bees eventually learned to fly to the yellow flowers, but it allowed Raine and his team to ascertain a measure of learning — through how quickly they went to those flowers and how “faithful” they remained to the sweet ones.

Article

The upshot: no real differences between the slow-learning bees and fast-learning ones.
“We have this implicit assumption that learning is a good thing and being smarter is good and being adaptive is a good thing, which I think it is for humans,” he said.

“We were really surprised when we looked at the data.”

This was different than Raine’s research from about a decade ago when he found that fast-learning bees in London, England brought nectar back to colonies at a “substantially higher rate than slower learning bees.

This research, he said, now shows that cognitive challenges have a real effect on bees’ success.

“It suggests we’re dealing with a much more complex system and learning is only useful to bees and other animals in more adverse conditions, such as an urban setting like London, where the distribution of resources like flowers are more patchily distributed,” Raine said.

“So we’re trying to get the bees to ignore the blue flowers and learn to associate this new yellow flower with a reward,” Raine said.

Bees are important wild plant and crop pollinators and colonies suffered catastrophic losses in Ontario in recent years. The province has banned an insecticide — used in farming — to help pollinators such as bumblebees.

The study was published recently in the scholarly journal Scientific Reports. 
“So we can infer the amount of nectar she brings back,” he said.

First, Raine said, they put colours and numbers on each bee and watched as they headed into an artificial meadow of fake blue and yellow flowers.
The fake blue flowers didn’t have a hidden well of sugar that serves as a reward, he explained, only the yellow ones contained the sweet solution.

The problems bees face are complicated, Raine said.

The implications are revelatory, he said.
Tweet

“We need to understand better how they’re using these landscapes to conserve them better and conserve the pollination services they provide free of charge because it’s really important for food production and maintaining diverse habitats across Canada.”

Print this story

Researchers also measured the bees’ mass upon exit and arrival, Raine said. Then they swapped the bees and let those bees out into the field, armed with tiny microchips super-glued to their backs that tracked when they left the colony and when they returned.

Canadian researcher Nigel Raine said he and his team used a novel approach whereby a bumblebee colony was split in two, with one half having access to the “flight arena” where the bees could be monitored visually, while the other half had access to the outside world to forage for real flowers.

“There are lots of things interacting from habitat and climate changes to other factors like higher levels of parasites and pathogens in bees,” he said.

Report an error

“It’s a relatively simple learning test, but it gives us a measure of learning speed and how well they’ve learned the task,” he said.

“The thinking shifts from being smart is always good to being smart is good under adverse conditions.”

Change text size for the story
The data showed slower-learning bees lived longer, Raine said. While the study wasn’t set up to specifically measure lifespan, researchers were able to track the last time each bee left and never returned — thus, assuming they died outside.

(Getty Images)
“Bumblebees have an innate preference for blue and, all else being equal, they go to blue,” said Raine, an environmental science professor at the University of Guelph.

Slow-learning bumblebees are just as successful as smart ones and live longer, suggests a new study that researchers say calls into question the assumption that brain superiority is better in the beleaguered pollinators’ world.
The study by three researchers from Canada, England and New Zealand shows slow-learning bumblebees collect food at similar rates as their cognitively superior brethren.

The queen, he said, was rotated between the two halves to ensure the colony didn’t degenerate into the “Lord of the Flies.”