Bumblebees Copy Each Other to Find Best Flowers: Study
A new study finds that bees copy other bees to select the best flowers that provide energy-rich nectar.
Researchers from Queen Mary, University of London, studied bumble bees and found that these small flying insects use a simple mechanism of choosing attractive flowers by watching other bees and learning from their behavior.
"Learning where to find nectar by watching others seems fantastically complex for a tiny bee, but it's something that almost any animal could do, in the right circumstances," Dr Elli Leadbeater, from Zoological Society of London, said in a statement.
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Worker bees visit thousands of flowers every day to search nectar so as to feed the queen's brood. In a bid to avoid the exhausting process of exploring each flower, the bees watch which colored flowers are mostly chosen by the foragers. They conclude that the flowers that have the most number of visitors will have energy-rich nectar.
For their study, the research team carried out the tests with bumblebees in wooden laboratory "flight arenas" filled with artificial flowers. They trained the bees to know that sugar is found in flowers which the foragers visit. The bees were allowed to watch through a screen as their companions visited a particular flower and ignored the rest.
When the bees were later tested to choose the flower color alone, they chose the flowers their companions had visited earlier.
The research team also noticed that bees consider whether their companions are making the right choices. In the lab, researchers made some flowers to taste bitter using quinine - a flavor used in tonic water which bees dislike. They noticed that the bees did not copy other bees if they knew that the foragers are visiting bitter-tasting flowers.
"Our study shows how bees use past associations to make decisions about when to copy others, but almost all other animals, including humans, are also capable of forming associations. For example, we might associate Easter with chocolate or injections with fear," said Erika Dawson, a PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London.
"This suggests that other species, not just bees, may also use this logical process when learning from others."
The findings of the study are published in the journal Current Biology.
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