Animal Cognition

, Volume 17, Issue 5, pp 1053–1061 | Cite as

Problem solving by worker bumblebees Bombus impatiens (Hymenoptera: Apoidea)

  • Hamida B. MirwanEmail author
  • Peter G. Kevan
Original Paper


During foraging, worker bumblebees are challenged by simple to complex tasks. Our goal was to determine whether bumblebees could successfully accomplish tasks that are more complex than those they would naturally encounter. Once the initial training to successfully manipulate a simple, artificial flower was completed, the bees were either challenged with a series of increasingly difficult tasks or with the most difficult task without the opportunity for prior learning. The first experiment demonstrated that the bees learned to slide or lift caps that prevented their access to the reinforcer sugar solution through a series of tasks with increasing complexity: moving one cap either to the right or to the left, or lifting it up. The second experiment demonstrated that the bees learned to push balls of escalating masses (diameters 1 and 1.27 cm) from the access to the hidden rewarding (sugar syrup) reservoir of artificial flowers. In both experiments, when bees with experience with only the simplest task (i.e. an artificial flower without a barrier to the reinforcer) were presented next with the most complex or difficult task, they failed. Only by proceeding through the series of increasingly difficult tasks were they able to succeed at the most difficult. We also noted idiosyncratic behaviours by individual bees in learning to succeed. Our results can be interpreted within the context of Skinnerian shaping and possibly scaffold learning.


Bumblebee Bee Apidae Bombus Learning Cognition Behaviour Scaffold learning Skinnerian shaping 



We thank the Canadian Pollination Initiative (NSERC-CANPOLIN) for funding some of this research reported. This contribution is No.110 from NSERC-CANPOLIN. HM thanks the Libyan Ministry of Education and Canadian Bureau for International Students for scholarships received. BioBest Biological Systems, Leamington, Ontario kindly provided colonies of the test subjects. We are especially grateful to Dr. Francesco Leri, Psychology Department of the University of Guelph for his critical review and help in preparing this paper.


  1. Alston DG, Tepedino VJ, Bradley BA et al (2007) Effects of the insecticide phosmet on solitary bee foraging and nesting in orchards of Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. Environ Entomol 36:811–816PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Amaya Marquez M (2009) Memory and learning in bees’ floral choices (Memoria y aprendizaje en la escogencia floral de las abejas). Acta Biol Colombiana 14:125–135Google Scholar
  3. Amaya-Marquez M, Hill PSM, Barthell JF et al (2008) Learning and memory during foraging of the blue orchard bee, Osmia lignaria say (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae). J Kansas Entomol Soc 81:315–327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barth FG (1985) Insects and flowers: the biology of a partnership. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  5. Bransford J, Brown A, Cocking R (2000) How people learn: mind, brain, experience and school. National Academy Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  6. Chance P (1999) Thorndike’s puzzle boxes and the origins of the experimental analysis of behavior. J Exp Anal Behav 72:433–440. doi: 10.1901/jeab.1999.72-433 PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chittka L (1998) Sensorimotor learning in bumblebees: long-term retention and reversal training. J Exp Biol 201:515–524Google Scholar
  8. Chittka L, Thomson JD (2001) Cognitive ecology of pollination: animal behaviour and floral evolution. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Collett TS, Fry SN, Wehner R (1993) Sequence learning by honeybees. J Comp Physiol A 172:693–706Google Scholar
  10. Gegear RJ, Laverty TM (1995) Effect of flower complexity on relearning flower-handling skills in bumble bees. Can J Zool 73:2052–2058CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gegear RJ, Laverty TM (1998) How many flower types can bumblebees work at the same time? Can J Zool 76:1358–1365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gegear RJ, Laverty TM (2005) Flower constancy in bumble bees: a test of the trait variability hypothesis. Anim Behav 69:939–949CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gill RJ, Ramos-Rodriguez O, Raine NE (2012) Combined pesticide exposure severely affects individual- and colony-level traits in bees. Nature 491:105–108PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Heinrich B (1976) Foraging specializations of individual bumblebees. Ecol Monogr 46:105–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Heinrich B (1979) “Majoring” and “minoring” by foraging bumblebees: Bombus vagans; an experimental study. Ecology 60:245–255CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kevan PG, Manzel R (2012) The plight of pollination and the interface of neurobiology, ecology and food security. Environmentalist 32:300–310CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Laverty TM (1980) The flower visiting behaviour of bumblebee: floral complexity and learning. Can J Zool 58:1324–1335CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Laverty TM (1994) Bumblebee and flower morphology. Anim Behav 47:531–545CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Laverty TM, Plowright CR (1988) Flower handling by bumblebees: a comparison of specialists and generalists. Anim Behav 36:733–740CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lavertyt M (1978) Flower-visiting behaviour of experienced and inexperienced bumblebees (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Thesis, University of Alberta, Edmonton, M.ScGoogle Scholar
  21. Mirwan HB, Kevan PG (2013) Social learning in bumblebees (Bombus impatiens): worker bumblebees learn to manipulate and forage at artificial flowers by observation and communication within the colony. Psyche 2013:1–8. doi: 10.1155/2013/768108 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Muller H, Chittka L (2012) Consistent interindividual differences in discrimination performance by bumble bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombus terrestris) in colour, shape and odour learning tasks. Entomol Gen 34:1–8Google Scholar
  23. Olson J, Platt J (2000) The instructional cycle. Teaching children and adolescents with special needs. Prentice-Hall, Inc, Upper Saddle River, pp 170–197Google Scholar
  24. Pankiw T, Page RE Jr (1999) The effect of genotype, age, sex, and caste on response thresholds to sucrose and foraging and behavior of honey bees (Apis mellifera L.). J Comp Physiol 185:207–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Raine NE, Chittka L (2012) No trade-off between learning speed and associative flexibility in bumble bees: a reversal learning test with multiple colonies. PLoS ONE 7(9):e45096. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045096 PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Raine NE, Ings TC, Ramos-Rodríguez O, Chittka L (2006) Intercolony variation in learning performance of a wild British bumble bee population (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombus terrestris audax). Entomol Gen 28:241–256Google Scholar
  27. Ray S, Ferneyhough B (1997) The effects of age on olfactory learning and memory in the honey bee Apis mellifera. Neuro Report J 8:789–793Google Scholar
  28. Sawyer KR (2006) The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences. Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  29. Skinner BF (1953) Science and human behavior. Macmillan, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  30. Thompson HM (2003) Behavioural effects of pesticides in bees—their potential for use in risk assessment. Ecotoxicol 12:317–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. von Frisch K (1967) The dance language and orientation of bees. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  32. Vygotsky LS (1987) Thinking and speech. In Vygotsky LS, Collected works (1: pp. 39–285) (R. Rieber & A. Carton, Eds; N. Minick, Trans). New York: Plenum. (Original works published in 1934, 1960)Google Scholar
  33. Woodward GL, Laverty TM (1992) Recall of flower handling skills by bumble bees: a test of Darwin’s interference hypothesis. Anim Behav 44:1041–1051CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Zhang SW, Bartsch K, Srinivasan MV (1996) Maze learning by honeybees. Neurobiol Learn Mem 66:267–282PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Zhang SW, Lehrer M, Srinivasan MV (1998) Stimulus—conditioned sequence learning in honeybees. In: Proceedings of the 26th Göttingen Neurobiology Conference 1998 (eds Elsner N and Wehner R), 2: 519. Stuttgart: ThiemeGoogle Scholar
  36. Zhang S, Mizutani A, Srinivasan MV (2000) Maze navigation by honeybees: learning path regularity. Learn Mem 7:363–374PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environmental Sciences and The Canadian Pollination InitiativeUniversity of GuelphGuelphCanada

Personalised recommendations