The Smart Male Bumblebees

Their brain copes with more than just reproduction

Feb 19, 2016
Theoretically, male bumblebees would be just as good at foraging as female worker bees.

Theoretically, male bumblebees would be just as good at foraging as female worker bees.

So far, outstanding intelligence has not been the main feature that comes to mind when referring to male bumblebees. But researchers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have now disproved this negative idea: Male bumblebees are just as intelligent and able to learn as female worker bees. When searching for promising food sources, both sexes show the same capability to learn, as Stephan Wolf and Lars Chittka write in a study published in the magazine “Animal Behaviour”.

In a behavioral experiment, scientists from the QMUL School of Biological and Chemical Sciences showed that male bees are able to find and remember flowers that serve as promising food sources – exactly as female worker bees do. Wolf and Chittka analyzed how clever bumblebees of both sexes were acting when searching for food. By means of blossom color, the insects learned and recognized whether the blossom was a more or less fruitful source of nectar. Furthermore, they were able to relearn when conditions changed.

With the help of artificial and differently colored flowers, Wolf and Chittka tested how deeply the bumblebees could connect the information about the blossom color with the rewarding nectar it contained. Some blossoms contained nectar; others did not. After a certain amount of time, the colors of the flowers were deliberately changed; so the bees had to newly orientate themselves, replacing learned information with new signals. The results show that the male as well as the female bumblebees were successful with this task. „Despite fundamental differences in the daily habits between male and female bees, this work illustrates that male bees can be clever shoppers in the flower supermarket even when their main interest is in mating“, lead author Wolf states.

Gender roles within a bee colony are strictly regulated: Sterile female worker bees are more engaged in activities such as cleaning the hive, defending it against enemies, collecting and storing food and feeding the young. In contrast, the major objective of male bumblebees is mating. Apart from reproduction, they do not seem to have many other important aptitudes. This might be the reason for their unjustified reputation for being lazy as well as less intelligent. This study has revealed that male bumblebees should not be underestimated. If they wished and were allowed to, they could take responsibility for various other useful activities within the life of their colonies.

Find out more about this topic at PHYS ORG.

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