The sophisticated brain of bees

The sophisticated brain of bees


Bees have fascinating cognitive abilities. To survive in the wild they must learn to accurately navigate miles away from their nest, locate and remember which flowers give the best rewards, collect pollen and nectar, and return home safely.

Despite the popular belief that insects move by simple, predetermined instincts, leading the life of a bee is a little more difficult. They need to process complex information and make decisions. And that requires a sophisticated brain.

They need a good night’s sleep to remember

In the laboratory, using mainly honey bees (apis mellifera) and bumblebees (Bombus terrestris), not only has it been shown that they learn to associate colors with certain stimuli, such as a sugary reward, but also that, in order to fix this learning, they require a calm and uneventful sleep.

Bees not only learn by trial and error, they can also learn by imitating peers. Although difficult to investigate, it has been shown that bees can understand symbolic thought and process numbers. In fact, they even feel something akin to optimism when making decisions, and are more “risky” when they have recently been lucky. So, having a big brain can be advantageous for themat least when they need to count flowers or memorize landscapes.

There are more than 20,000 different species of bees (twice as many birds!), and not all of them have equally large brains. When we refer to brain size, it is always relative to body size, as larger species generally have larger hearts, larger stomachs, and larger brains as well.

So the proper question is: Why are there species with much smaller brains than we would expect for their body size and others with much larger brains than expected? The brain is a very expensive organ to develop and maintain, so if there are species that invest in large brains, it should be evolutionarily justified.

learning test

Recently we have been able to measure the brain size of more than 100 species of wild bees to investigate why we see so much variation. The first important test was to show whether larger brains confer better cognitive abilities.

Although this is the expected result, it had never been verified in insects. To do this, we “taught” different species of bees to associate a sugary reward with a color, and then we gave them a test to see if they chose the correct color even when there was no reward. Bees with relatively larger brains learned faster and more accurately than those with relatively small brains.

Now it’s time to return to the life of the bee. Locate favorite flowers, remember where they are, find the nest, etc. The next question we wanted to answer with our experiments was what kinds of bees need those big, expensive brains.

Specialist bees have bigger brains

What we find is that bees that specialize in only one type of flower have evolved to have larger brains. Bees that feed on everything don’t have to work as hard because they have many flowers to choose from; on the other hand, bees that have to think about where that specific flower is and memorize its characteristics need a bigger brain.

Understanding the brain of bees is also important to understand their conservation status. Many bee populations are clearly in decline, but not all species are equally vulnerable.

We are currently checking whether bees with larger brains are able to adapt to living better in big cities, where the environment is constantly changing, and a great capacity to learn and adapt to new situations is needed. Preliminary results indicate that this is the case. Having a large brain can help them survive in human-dominated environments.

Investing in big, expensive brains can be a bad strategy when the environment is predictable and there’s no need to improvise, but when it becomes necessary to locate rare flowers, or adapt to living among cars and buildings, a big, plastic brain can make all the difference. vital.

Font: Ignasi Bartomeus / THE CONVERSATION

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Written by Editor TLN

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