Bees play, according to new research from Queen Mary University of London published in Animal Behavior. It is the first time object play behavior has been demonstrated in an insect, adding to growing evidence that bees may experience positive “feelings”.
The research team set up several experiments to test their hypothesis, which showed that bees went out of their way to roll wooden balls repeatedly, even though there was no obvious incentive to do so. Three videos of the bees at play are available in the editors notes below.
The study also found that younger bees rolled more balls than older bees, reflecting the human behavior of young children and other young mammals and birds being the most playful, and that male bees rolled them for longer than their female counterparts. .
The study tracked 45 bumblebees in an arena and gave them the options of walking through an unobstructed path to reach a feeding area or deviating from that path to the wooden ball areas. Individual bees rolled balls between 1 and, impressively, 117 times during the experiment. Repeated behavior suggests that rolling the ball was rewarding.
This was supported by a further experiment where another 42 bees were given access to two colored chambers, one always containing moving balls and the other no objects. When tested and given a choice between two chambers, neither of which contained balls, the bees showed a preference for the color of the chamber previously associated with the wooden balls. The set-up of the experiments removed any idea that the bees were moving the balls for any greater purpose than play. Rolling balls did not contribute to survival strategies such as food acquisition, clutter removal, or mating and was done under stress-free conditions.
The research builds on previous experiments from the same lab at Queen Mary, which showed bumblebees can be taught to score by rolling a ball at a target in exchange for a sugary food reward. During the previous experiment, the team noticed that the bees rolled balls out of the experiment, without receiving any food reward. The new research showed that bees repeatedly rolled balls without being trained and without being fed to do so – it was voluntary and spontaneous – thus similar to play behavior seen in other animals.
The study’s first author, Samadi Galpayage, a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London, said: “It is certainly shocking, sometimes amusing, to watch bees show something like play. They approach and manipulate these “toys” over and over again. It proves, once again, that despite their small size and tiny mind, they are more than little robotic beings. They may actually experience some kind of positive emotional states, even if they are rudimentary, like other larger fluffy or not so fluffy animals. This kind of finding has implications for our understanding of insect sentience and well-being and will hopefully encourage us to respect and protect life on Earth even more.”
Professor Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioral Ecology at Queen Mary University of London, head of the lab and author of the recent book ‘The Mind of a Bee’, said: “This research provides strong evidence that insect minds are very more sophisticated than we imagine. There are many animals that play just for pleasure, but most examples come from young mammals and birds.
“We are producing ever-increasing amounts of evidence supporting the need to do everything we can to protect insects a million miles away from the mindless, uncaring creatures they are traditionally thought to be.”
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