Bumble Bees Like To Play With Toys Too!

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Bees enjoyed rolling the balls even when there was no reward (Credit: Dona, H.S.G., et al., Animal Behavior, 2022)

Bumble bees have a reputation for being industrious creatures. The insects are known to spend their days collecting pollen and nectar from flowers. But a new study from the Queen Mary University of London in the UK asserts that, like humans, the bees also enjoy a little playtime.

The findings build upon previous experiments conducted by Professor Lars Chittka and his team. In that study, the scientists taught the bees to roll a ball in exchange for food. While performing the tests, the researchers noticed some bees pushing the ball even when no reward was offered.

"We saw this phenomenon, and we wondered: What's happening here? Why are the bees doing this? Are there specific bees that are doing this? Do they do this repeatedly?" says study co-author Samadi Galpayage.

Most bees chose the chambers with balls over the unobstructed path (Credit: Dona, H.S.G., et al., Animal Behavior, 2022)

The scientists decided to investigate if the insects were "playing" with the balls. In the first experiment, 45 bumble bees were led through a tunnel with two paths. The first path led straight to the food. The second path entailed passing an area filled with small wooden balls — each about the size of a marble. To the researchers' surprise, the bees repeatedly chose the chamber with the balls. Once there, they started rolling the balls, even when they had no incentive to do so.

In the second experiment, a different set of bees were given the choice of two colored chambers. One was filled with balls, while the other one was empty. The bees consistently preferred the former chamber even after the balls were removed. In both experiments, the younger bees spent more time playing than the adults. One active little insect was observed rolling the ball 117 times!

The bees went towards the chamber which had the balls even after they had been removed (Credit: Dona, H.S.G., et al., Animal Behavior, 2022)

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Animal Behaviour on October 19, 2022, say bumble bees are the first insects known to play for fun. They believe the playful behavior may be proof that the insects' minds are much more complex than previously thought. Dr. Chittka and his team hope their study will encourage humans to do more to conserve bees and their habitat.

"It is certainly mind-blowing, at times amusing, to watch bumble bees show something like play," Galpayage said. "It goes to show, once more, that despite their little size and tiny brains, they are more than small robotic beings. They may actually experience some kind of positive emotional states, even if rudimentary."

Resources: Sciencedirect.com, Eurekalert.com

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