Bubbles is going to play with it. Yes, there are pictures of that too. Yes, they are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
The countless toy books that hit the mat this time of year already reveal it: toddlers love toys. They can entertain themselves for hours with a ball, blocks, a doll or other play equipment. They are not alone; Previous research has shown that other mammals and different types of birds can exhibit playful behavior. But new research – published in the journal Animal behavior – now reveals that an impressive newcomer can be added to that list dominated by mammals and birds. Bumblebees seem to be able to ‘play’ too.
British researchers come to this conclusion on the basis of experiments. In the first experiment, they placed 45 bumblebees in a room. The bumblebees were able to traverse that space – unhindered – to reach a second room where food was waiting for them. But they can also deviate from the route and stop in certain parts of the room with wooden beads. Remarkably, the bumblebees routinely made that stopover and then began pushing against the balls. There was even a bumblebee that rolled beads 117 times.
What fascinated me were mainly the young bumblebees busy with beads. Also, males curl beads longer than females.
Preference for pearls
Repeated pushing of beads by bumblebees indicates that the behavior paid off or benefited the bumblebees in some way. This was further supported by a second experiment in which 42 bumblebees were given access to two rooms, each a different color. Pearls were always found in a room. The other room was empty. As soon as Bumblebees found out, the room with the beads was also emptied, again giving Bumblebees a choice between the two rooms. Bumblebees have a strong preference for the room where the beads were previously placed.
Playing pays off
Experiments designed so that the bumblebees did not have to move the beads to increase their chances of obtaining food, survival, or mating—suggested that the bumblebees were actually playing. The fact that bumblebees do it repeatedly suggests that it somehow does them some good. In other words: paying to play. As noted, that reward needs to be looked at from a different angle, the researchers caution, because it doesn’t provide bumblebees with food or a better chance of survival. For example, experiments suggest that bumblebees experience something like positive ’emotions’.
No robotic creatures
“It’s certainly remarkable that bumblebees exhibit play-like behavior – sometimes amusing,” said researcher Samadi Galpayage. “They repeatedly approach and manipulate the ‘toy.’ – perhaps experiencing a fundamental – positive emotional state. Colleague Lars Chitka agrees. “This research strongly suggests that the insect brain is much more advanced than we can imagine. There are many animals that play because they enjoy it, but most examples are young mammals and birds.
The idea to test whether bumblebees can play was born years ago. Then the same research team showed that you can teach bumblebees to ‘score goals’. Inn experiments Bumblebees were rewarded when they rolled a ball into the marked spot. However, during that study, the researchers saw that the bumblebees also started playing with the balls when the experiment was already over, so there was no more reward. New experiments show that bumblebees can repeatedly, automatically, roll beads without food reward. It’s a textbook example of playful behavior, the researchers argue, that we’ve seen before between very different species.
Interestingly, bumblebees – with their tiny brains – can also derive positive ‘feelings’ from playful behaviour. “It will radically change our view of insects and have a big impact on how we treat them,” Chitka says. “There is growing evidence to support the fact that we need to do everything we can to protect insects that are miles away from what we traditionally consider sensitive species.”
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