Bumblebees blocking the path from your house to your car? No problem. New research suggests an interesting, and extremely entertaining, way to ward them off. Hand the critters a tiny wooden ball and they might become preoccupied enough to stop terrorizing your morning commute.
On Thursday, a team of researchers presented evidence that bumblebees, like humans, like to play with fun little objects.
After engaging 45 bumblebees in a bunch of experiments, it became clear the bees went out of their way to roll wooden balls repeatedly, despite no apparent incentive to do so. In other words, it seems the bees were “playing” with the balls. Plus, as with humans, there seemed to be an age at which bees lost their playfulness.
According to a paper on the findings published last month in the journal Animal Behavior, younger bees rolled more balls than older bees just like you’d expect children to be more into playing games than adults. The team also saw male bees rolling the ball for a longer period of time than female bees. (Not sure if that bit translates to human behavior, though.)
“This research provides a strong indication that insect minds are far more sophisticated than we might imagine,” Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioral ecology at Queen Mary University of London who led the study, said in a statement. “There are lots of animals who play just for the purposes of enjoyment, but most examples come from young mammals and birds.”
It’s a pretty big deal to know insects like playing because it gives us a way to extrapolate that they likely feel some sort of positive emotions. And that poses important moral questions about how we treat them. Do we respect nonverbal animals as much as we should? Do we even register them as conscious beings?
That may be particularly true for bees. A 2011 study, for instance, showed bees exhibiting brain chemistry changes when agitated, or simply shook around by researchers. Those changes directly correlate with anxiety, depression and other psychological states we’re used to seeing in humans and other mammals — yet, perhaps because insects can’t speak, let alone cry or show facial expressions, we don’t often think about them as having feelings.
“We are producing ever increasing amounts of evidence … to do all we can to protect insects that are a million miles from the mindless, unfeeling creatures they are traditionally believed to be,” Chittka said.
I mean, look at the video below to see a bunch of chubby bees rolling around on balls as though they’re in a circus. It’s truly adorable, and especially sweet because we know they’re doing this just because it’s fun.
Chittka and fellow scientists basically placed the 45 bumblebees in an arena, then presented them with different scenarios where they could choose to “play” or not “play.”
One experiment gave the bugs access to two chambers. The first contained moving balls, and the other was empty. As you might expect, the bees showed a preference for the chamber associated with the moving balls.
In another situation, the bees were given the option to either walk through an unobstructed path to a feeding area or deviate from the path to go to a place with wooden balls. Quite a few picked the ball pit. In fact, individual insects rolled balls between 1 and a whopping 117 times over the course of the experiment.
Yes, this means they picked playing with balls over literally eating.
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To guard against confounding variables, researchers made sure to isolate the concept of playing with the balls. They didn’t offer the bees a reward for playing with the balls and ruled out the possibility that they were somehow stressed in the non-ball chambers, for instance.
“It is certainly mind-blowing, at times amusing, to watch bumblebees show something like play,” Samadi Galpayage, first author of the study and a researcher at Queen Mary University, said in a statement. “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,” Galpayage continued. “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.”