Uncovering the Playful Side of Bumblebees

Uncovering the Playful Side of Bumblebees

STORY AT-A-GLANCE

  • Recent research published in the journal Animal Behaviour reaches the fascinating conclusion that bumblebees play for fun, similar to dogs and dolphins
  • This is the first study to report object play behavior in an insect and adds to a growing body of evidence that bees experience positive feelings
  • Previous research has demonstrated that bumblebees can learn to roll a ball to a target to “score a goal” in return for food rewards

In a study published in December 2022,1 scientists established that just like dogs and dolphins, bumblebees are among a handful of species observed to play just for fun.

This research marks the first time that object play behavior has been reported in an insect, and adds to mounting evidence that bees may experience positive “feelings.”2

How Play Differs From Other Natural Behaviors

To determine if an animal’s (or in this case, an insect’s) behavior qualifies as “playing” (vs. behaviors that benefit survival in some way), scientists look for the following five criteria:3

  1. The behavior doesn’t provide an immediate adaptive benefit or survival strategy
  2. It is voluntary, spontaneous and rewarding
  3. It is different from behaviors that involve finding food or a mate
  4. Play behavior is repeated but not stereotyped
  5. It is initiated under stress-free conditions

Study Says: Bees Just Want to Have Fun

For the study, scientists at the Queen Mary University of London involved 45 bumblebees in three different wooden ball-rolling tests to determine if their behavior with the balls could be defined as animal play.

The bees were placed in an arena and had the option to either move through an unobstructed path to a feeding area, or venture into areas containing wooden balls. The researchers observed that individual bees rolled balls between 1 and, unbelievably, 117 times during the experiment. The repeated behavior suggested that ball-rolling for the sake of ball-rolling was rewarding to the bees.

Another experiment involved a separate group of 42 bees that were given access to two colored chambers, one with movable balls, and one without any objects. Next, the balls were removed and the bees were given a choice of the two empty chambers, at which point they showed a preference for the colored chamber that had contained the wooden balls in the first stage of the test.

In the third experiment, another 45 bees were presented with three options: 1) move through the balls to the feeding area, 2) head for immobile wooden balls on the left, or 3) head for mobile balls on the right. The bees chose to roll the mobile balls when there was no obvious reason to do so, suggesting the play behavior was spontaneous.

Bees May Experience Positive Emotional States

According to the study authors, the set-up of the experiments removed any doubt that the bees were playing with the balls for fun, since rolling them around offered no survival benefit such as access to food, clearing clutter, or mating, and was done under stress-free conditions. Based on their observations, it was clear the bees were going out of their way to roll the balls for their own enjoyment, since no other incentives were offered.

Further, younger bees engaged in the behavior more than adult bees, which is similar to human children and other young animals, and male bees rolled the balls longer than females.

“It is certainly mind-blowing, at times amusing, to watch bumble bees show something like play,” said lead study author Samadi Galpayage, PhD student at Queen Mary University of London. “They approach and manipulate these ‘toys’ again and again. 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, like other larger fluffy, or not so fluffy, animals do.”4

Galpayage continues:

“This sort of finding has implications to our understanding of sentience and welfare of insects and will, hopefully, encourage us to respect and protect life on Earth ever more.”5

Insect Minds May Be Far More Sophisticated Than We Imagined

Scientists with the same lab at Queen Mary University have conducted previous experiments showing that bumblebees can be taught to roll a ball to a target to “score a goal” in return for a sugary food reward. However, this latest study showed the bees rolling balls repeatedly, with no training and no food incentive. Their behavior was voluntary and spontaneous, which makes it similar to play behavior seen in other animals.

According to study co-author 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:

“… This research provides a strong indication that insect minds are far more sophisticated than we might imagine. There are lots of animals who play just for the purposes of enjoyment, but most examples come from young mammals and birds.We are producing ever-increasing amounts of evidence backing up the need to do all we can to protect insects that are a million miles from the mindless, unfeeling creatures they are traditionally believed to be.”6

Sources and References

  • 1 Dona, H.S.G. et al. Do bumble bees play? Animal Behaviour, Volume 194, December 2022, Pages 239-251
  • 2,5,6 Phys.org, October 27, 2022
  • 3,4 IFLScience, October 28, 2022