Science Friday: Playful bees

Oh my! When I saw this article in National Geographic, I knew I had to share it with my readers. I know people who keep bees. I have a friend that told me she likes to pet bumble bees. They almost purr like kittens when I run a forefinger gently over their backs. I guess it’s not that much of a leap to think that bees play, too.

Scientist  Gordon Burghardt developed scientific criteria for play: “play should be voluntary, spontaneous, or rewarding in and of itself. The act of “playing” is a behavior that doesn’t have any immediately obvious functionality such as obtaining food, finding shelter, or mating.”

Bees can learn how to play soccer?

According to researchers, bumblebees like to roll little wooden balls around for fun.

Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris audax) are one of the most common species of bumblebees in Europe, often found in parks, gardens, and used to pollinate greenhouses. Yet, these fuzzy, buzzing insects are known to science as tiny social creatures with surprisingly expansive cognitive abilities. In 2017, scientists at the Queen Mary University of London conducted research showing that bees can also be taught to play soccer, scoring a goal with small wooden balls in return for a reward.

National Geographic

While the scientists were busy training the bees, they noticed something interesting about the “spectator bees.” They rolled the tiny wooden balls around just for fun. Male bees played for longer periods of time, as did the younger bees. This finding agrees with the observation of play in vertebrate animal studies.

“More play in younger individuals could be linked to preparing individuals for the world they find themselves in,” says Elizabeth Franklin, a behavioral ecologist specializing in social insects at Cornwall College Newquay, who was not involved in the study.

National Geographic

Scientists went on to evaluate all of Gordon’s criteria for play and the bees and their balls met every requirement. (I think these experiments meet some of the fun criteria for scientists, too. I know I’m having a lot of fun reading about it.)

Uh-oh, now there’s a conundrum. “If the only reason for play is enjoyment, this means scientists have to start asking real questions about whether insects have feelings, and therefore whether they are sentient.” Other studies show that bumblebees can experience optimism.

Will the bees opt to unionize next? Wait. Maybe they already have.

There’s more. Fruitflies experience fear, and crayfish get anxious. I already knew that the delicious smell of new-mown grass is actually due to a stress pheromone that grass gives off as it gets “decapitated.” Now I need to worry about the well-being of insects? I don’t even want to think about the emotions of a mosquito.

This took a dark turn. I think I’ll go toss a ball around and have a little fun.