Given that we refer to many bees as drones, we probably imagine bees as studious little workers that do what their instincts drive them to do and little else.
We may not be giving them enough credit.
A study published in PLOS Biology this week found that bees are not only quick to learn new skills but that they'll teach other bees, too. Bumblebees were tasked with getting at small discs filled with sugar water that were covered by a sheet of transparent material. Some bees figured out on their own that pulling a string would get them the reward, but many needed to be trained step-by-step by scientists.
After training one set of bees, scientists allowed a different set of bees to observe the string-pulling exercises, and 60 percent of the new bees picked up on the string skills. These bees then become "demonstrators" and new bees learned how to pull the string to get the reward. This passing down of the skill through observation would allow the skill to survive within a colony well beyond the lifespan of the original, scientist-trained group.
As the researchers point out, this is a sizable step forward in terms of how we conceptualize learning. Humans, obviously, pass along all kinds of knowledge, and other animals have been shown to learn how to use tools from other members of their species. That said, learning is still regarded as a high-cognition process. However, as the authors of the study suggest, "so long as animals have a basic toolkit of associative and motor learning processes, the key ingredients for the cultural spread of unusual skills are already in place and do not require sophisticated cognition."
So the next time you hear Ella Fitzgerald singing about how bees do it and birds do it, you'll know it's not just falling in love; it's also learning from one another.