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Bees know what's what

By Dave Armstrong - 06 Nov 2013 7:36:56 GMT
Bees know what's what

An animal that regularly has to take decisions about nectar or pollen sources, quantities and qualities, could be expected to have the cognition to enable simple problem-solving. But not every problem; honey bee image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The invertebrates and many vertebrates are sometimes ridiculed for their inability to think. Only dogs, dolphins and rats have been tested for what science regards as "metacognition." This is the gauging of whether the level of certainty they have about the solution to a problem is appropriate. The oldest theories suggest they are imprinted with their life history and that problem-solving is beyond the individual, if not the species' adaptability. Bees are among the social invertebrates that we expect the most of and this research proves, to a point, that they do have some obvious abilities that make them capable of problem-solving.

1. With reward and punishment involved in the set of experiments within this study, the bee could always fly away from a visual test. The two authors, Clint J. Perry and Andrew B. Barron from Macquarie University in Sydney, changed the shape, colour and position of the targets so that bees needed to learn how to solve each task. The reward was some nectar in one chamber, while the alternative chamber contained a bitter tasting, but harmless, substance. As the difficulty of the problem increased, the individuals were more and more likely to opt out of both chambers and fly off!

Andrew Barron relates the results to human predicaments. "It's a highly debated topic, whether non-humans have the same abilities to gauge their level of certainty about a choice before taking action," The complex and very adaptive process proves in honey bees at least that invertebrates and others are capable of the same decisions as dogs, dolphins, rats and even humans. It's all about confidence, just as with pupils in school, about to decide on exam choice. Then again, sometimes, it's just too much for them! Drs. Perry and Barron present their paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.