We've known for a while that bees choose their flowers based on what they see other bees doing. This type of learning by observation is a fairly complex social behavior. So how did bees master it? Now, a group of scientists say it all comes down to how bees use logic.
Numerous species throughout the animal kingdom learn new things by watching the behavior of others. Chimpanzees, for example, can learn how to use a new tool to get food by watching other chimps, or even by watching humans. And in the 1920s, Great Tits in England learned to break the foil caps of milk bottles to get the cream at the top — this technique became common knowledge among the birds within a couple decades. But this learning ability apparently isn't reserved for just "smart" animals.
Research in 2005 showed that the bumblebee uses observational learning, too. In the study, scientists allowed bees to observe the foraging behaviors of other bees through a Perspex screen. When the spying bees were allowed to forage alone (with a new, random array of colored, artificial flowers), they copied the color preferences of the bees they watched.
In the insect world, "learning by watching other things has only been shown in bumblebees," says Elli Leadbeater, a zoologist at the Zoological Society of London. Given bees' tiny brains, figuring out where to find nectar just by observing others seems like pretty complex behavior. But Leadbeater wondered: Is it really that complex or is there a simple explanation to it all?