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How to “bee” a smart animal

Researchers continue to rewrite the book on accepted notions of animal smarts.

In 2002, Oxford University researchers made history by showing tool use in a bird. A female Caledonian crow rivaled the intelligence of primates in getting to her food.

Now bees bask in the spotlight, caught rolling yellow balls towards a soccer goal. One might think that the phrase ‘bees playing soccer’ belongs in the domain of fiction, but it’s now a trending search term thanks to scientific research on animal cognition. Researchers in the United Kingdom at Queen Mary University, London just published evidence that bees can learn ‘soccer’ in one of the world’s top peer-reviewed science journals.


Video via CNN.

In mesmerising footage, bees doggedly move balls almost their own size across the floor until they sit in the middle of a marked circle, the ‘goal’. A medicine dropper descends from the sky dispensing food as reward. For this liquid treat, the bees avidly push the balls, just as in another other training-for-reward experiment. Soccer-bees acquire their skills by watching an already trained bee or even an ‘artificial bee’ manipulated by humans. What it shows is that bees are ‘smart enough’ not just to ‘play soccer’ but to mimic and thereby learn. What else might bees be capable of learning in nature and how do they use these skills in the wild?

From primates to cetaceans, to birds to insects such as soccer playing bees, science continues to reveal the brains of the animal world.

While science continues to push back the accepted boundaries of animal intelligence, everyone can contribute to this white-boxing of the natural world. Today, scientists are aided in documenting animal abilities by an unusual source: our social media addiction to ‘cute animal’ clips. The Internet is a growing treasure trove of animals doing the unexpected, and some of it counts as very smart.

For the down-right clever, there’s a seal who can tell the time and emerges from the ocean at 9am, 1 pm, and 4 pm for feeding. A dog was trained to play pool, revealing both an understanding of the concept of targeting balls and the uncanny ability to do it. We are inured of the super-hero antics of squirrels completing obstacle courses to raid bird feeders, but have you ever seen a rodent engineer? This hamster arranges building blocks to reach treats.

Many touching videos show animals being empathetic, such as this cat who nurses sick animals or caged gorillas enjoying a visit from a tiny lizard. When empathy meets ingenuity we see behaviours such as a dog letting out his caged puppy friend to play once those fun-spoiling humans are safely asleep.

The public is turning out to be, whether knowingly or not, animal ethnographers. The diversity of pets, farm animals, and wild animals they track with lens is exposing the rarest of behaviors. These behaviors not only make intriguing viewing but serve to widen our thinking about the animal world and perhaps diminish our iron-gripped hold on cleverness.

Might we be less willing to destroy creatures whom we believe are ‘smart’? Bees used to be prevalent and abundant but now are appearing on the endangered species list. Might we better seek to protect bees, which are threatened by a range of human activities, once we appreciate how they can learn?

Might we be kinder towards animals if we believe they share feelings more like ours? Here are two circus elephants remembering each other after 22 years and bending the metal bars of their enclosures to greet each other properly with trunks and ‘hugs’. All manners of animals play just for fun, like this bird riding a walking sidewalk or this white beluga whale ‘scaring’ onlookers. Animals can exert their will, as in this baby panda who wants attention and this nonplussed cat who plays dead.

We continue to gain insights about even our closest of animal companions. One of the most common internet memes is ‘guilty dog’ (‘Did, you eat that donut, Fido!?). Science suggests these dogs aren’t guilty but showing fear. How often are we still getting things wrong? How much more do we have to learn? Soccer-bees suggest volumes.

Featured image credit: Bumble Bee by dennisflarsen. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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