Scientists prove that bumblebees like to play with toys

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Bumblebees blocking the way from your house to your car? No problem. New research suggests an interesting and hugely entertaining way to ward them off. Give the creatures a little wooden ball and they might get 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 that the bees did their best to roll wooden balls over and over, despite no apparent incentive to do so. In other words, it looks like the bees were “playing” with the balls. Also, as with humans, there seemed to be an age when bees lost their playfulness.

A close up of a bumblebee holding a yellow ball the size of its own body.

A bumblebee playing with a yellow wooden ball.

Samadi Galpayage

According to a paper on the results published last month in the journal Animal Behavior, younger bees rolled more balls than older bees, just as children would be expected to enjoy playing games more than adults. . The team also saw male bees rolling the ball for a longer period of time than female bees. (I don’t know if that translates to human behavior, though.)

“This research provides a strong indication that insect minds are much more sophisticated than we imagine,” said Lars Chittka, professor of sensory and behavioral ecology at Queen Mary University of London who led the study. study, in a press release. “There are plenty of animals that just play for fun, but most examples come from young mammals and birds.”

Knowing that insects like to play is pretty important, because it gives us a way to extrapolate that they’re probably feeling some kind of positive emotion. And this raises important moral questions about how we treat them. Do we respect non-verbal animals as much as we should? Do we even register them as conscious beings?

Frans BM de Waal, author of the bestseller Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are, sums up part of the problem by saying that “since animals don’t talk, their feelings have been denied”.

This may be especially true for bees. A 2011 study, for example, showed that bees exhibited changes in brain chemistry when agitated or simply shaken by researchers. These changes are directly correlated to anxiety, depression, and other psychological states that we are used to seeing in humans and other mammals. Yet, perhaps because insects can’t talk, let alone cry or show facial expressions, we don’t often think of them as having feelings.

“We’re producing ever-increasing amounts of evidence…to do all we can to protect insects that are millions of miles away from the mindless, insensitive creatures they’re traditionally thought to be,” Chittka said.

I mean, check out the video below to see a bunch of chubby bees rolling around on balls like they’re in a circus. It’s really adorable, and especially cute because we know they just do it because it’s fun.

Chittka and his fellow scientists basically placed the 45 bumblebees in an arena and then presented them with different scenarios in which they could choose to “play” or not “play”.

An experiment gave insects access to two chambers. The first contained moving balls, and the other was empty. As expected, the bees showed a preference for the chamber associated with the moving balls.

In another situation, the bees had the option of walking on a clear path to a feeding area or deviating from the path to get to a place with wood balls. Many chose the ball pool. In fact, individual insects rolled balls between 1 and 117 times during the experiment.

Yes, that means they literally chose to play with balls while eating.

To guard against confounding variables, the 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 ballless chambers, for example.

“It’s certainly mind-blowing, sometimes fun, to watch bumblebees show off something like a game,” Samadi Galpayage, the study’s first author and researcher at Queen Mary University, said in a statement. “They approach and handle these ‘toys’ again and again. It shows, once again, that despite their small size and small brains, they are more than just little robotic beings.”

“They can actually experience some sort of positive emotional states, even if they’re rudimentary, like other larger or less fluffy animals,” Galpayage continued. “This type of finding has implications for our understanding of insect susceptibility and well-being and will hopefully encourage us to increasingly respect and protect life on Earth.”

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