Bumblebees use Lego blocks to build science and recognise the value of teamwork

A new groundbreaking study reveals that cooperation by bumblebees isn’t simply a result of accumulated individual efforts. Rather, these miniature-brained creatures are not just hard-working pollinators, but also show signs of being master collaborators.
Two bumblebees and a building block
In a block-pushing task, bumblebees were taught to push a Lego block together. Photo by Olli Loukola

The study, conducted at the University of Oulu in Finland and published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, demonstrates the role of teamwork for bumblebees in novel cooperative challenges.

It has previously been thought that understanding the role of a partner in a cooperative task is a complex phenomenon that is mainly characteristic of big-brained mammals such as humans and chimpanzees. But new research shows that even insects can learn and adapt to cooperative tasks. Understanding how collaboration has become so important for humans requires comparisons with other species. “The study’s findings challenge conventional notions of insects, and the ability to work together towards a common goal is present even in the miniature brain of bumblebees”, says lead researcher, Associate Professor, Dr Olli Loukola.

In the study, pairs of bumblebees were trained in two different cooperative tasks. Bees learned to simultaneously push a Lego block in the middle of an arena, or to simultaneously push a door at the end of a transparent double tunnel to gain access to rewarding nectar.

Bumblebees’ behaviours suggest their efforts towards solving the cooperative tasks were influenced by the presence, absence, and movement direction of their partner. When their partner was delayed, bees tended to take longer than controls to initiate pushing and were more likely to push only when their partner pushed with them. In short, bees trained on cooperative tasks seemed to wait for their partner. The bumblebees in the control group, which had been trained alone, did not show similar behaviour.

In the tunnel task, if their partner was delayed, partnered bees were also much more likely than controls to turn around before they first reached the door and to turn around again back towards the door when they saw their partner heading in the right direction.

Two bumblebees on a test arena
Image: In a tunnel task, bumblebees and their partner had to touch a door at the end of a tunnel at the same time. Photo by Olli Loukola

Dr Loukola states: “Our findings show for the first time that bumblebees can learn to solve novel cooperative tasks outside the hive. But the coolest part of this work is that it clearly demonstrates that bumblebee cooperation is socially influenced, and not just driven by individual efforts.”

Bees’ turning behaviours hint at the possibility that they are intentionally working with each other to facilitate cooperation. However, Dr Loukola warns: “Whether bumblebees truly understand the role of their partner will require further research with more detailed monitoring of their behaviour during cooperation.”

"This research can contribute to a broader understanding of animal behaviour and evolution. It may also inspire new research on the evolution of social intelligence and cooperation in different animal species, as well as applications in areas such as technology, robotics and medicine. A better understanding of the complex behaviour and abilities of animals can increase interest in environmental protection and animal welfare," concludes Loukola.

The study was published on 1 May 2024: Loukola, O. J., Antinoja, A., Mäkelä, K., Arppi, J., Peng, F., Solvi, C. (2024). Evidence for socially influenced and potentially actively coordinated cooperation by bumblebees. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 291(2022), 20240055. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2024.0055

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Research videos

Video 1. Block-pushing task: training

The video shows a bumblebee moving a block to reach the nectar below the block. While pushing, the bumblebee uses its forelegs while its tongue moves under the block. Video: Olli Loukola

Video 2. Block-pushing task: delay test

The video shows the bumblebee being tested waiting for its mate before starting to push the block with the mate. Video: Olli Loukola

Video 3. Tunnel task

The video shows several instances when partnered bees turned back towards the reward door (i.e. while heading away from the reward door they changed direction back towards the reward door). Video: Olli Loukola

Last updated: 1.5.2024