Bee rolling a yellow ball
Photo by Lidia Loukola

Scientists taught bees to play golf—and it may be relevant to their survival

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Bees are some of the most skilled members of the insect world. They dance, they can remember human faces, and they pretty much keep the ecosystem as we know it afloat through pollination. And now, with the help of scientists, bees have again shown us what extraordinary insects they are—this time, by learning to play golf.

Scientists taught bees how to play a basic version of the game as a test of their cognitive flexibility, though of course, they aren’t exactly playing golf as we know it (they won’t be swinging five-irons any time soon). Instead, their version of the game involves rolling a ball into a hole, which may seem simple to us tool-using mammals, but for invertebrates is quite impressive.

According to an article in the academic journal Sciencethe fact that bees were able to manipulate objects to meet a specific goal showed cognitive complexity and also showcased their ability to learn by demonstration. The bees observed scientists rolling balls into the hole, and then were given a reward when they did the same.

“We wanted to explore the cognitive limits of bumblebees by testing whether they could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before by any individual in the evolutionary history of bees,” Dr. Clint Perry, one of the study’s authors, told QMUL.

After learning the game, the bees even showed improvisational skills, choosing to roll the balls that were closest to the hole even when they were a different colour from the balls they’d seen before.

So fun and game aside, why do golfing bees matter? Because if bees can learn to golf, they can learn to do other things—and adaptation will likely turn out to be very important if bees are to survive in our fast-changing world. As we mentioned, bees are vital to our ecosystem. They play a critical role in helping plants reproduce, and without them, the food chain for many species (including humans) would be disrupted. But in recent years, bee populations have been declining, and many bees are dying due to human-caused changes like pesticide use and climate change, and they may have to adapt to survive.

For all of our sakes, humans must help create a world that bees can survive in. But in an unstable world, it’s heartening to hear that bees might have a few tricks of their own up their sleeves.