Do Bumblebees play?

Do Bumblebees play?

A recent study published in Life magazine in November 2022 shows Bumblebees playing with wooden balls.

The study on Buff-Tailed Bumblebees found that they seem to play with wooden balls rather than go around them to get to a food snack.

The Buff-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris audax) is an insect in the Apidae family of bees. It is also known as the Large Earth Bumblebee. It feeds on pollen from flowers.

Researchers at the Queen Mary University of London read about insects being trained to play with soccer balls for a food reward in 2017, so they wanted to test this claim. In the 2022 study, the Queen Mary University researchers placed 45 male and female Buff-Tailed Bumblebees, of different ages, in an ‘arena’ with only one entrance and a clear aisle from the entrance to pollen and sweet sugar water at the back. The bees would have to pass between two adjacent rooms with 18 colourful wooden balls to get to the sugar water.

One room had free-moving balls, and the other room had balls that were glued down, so that they could not move. The bees had 18 experiment sessions, each of 3 hours duration, for the researchers to observe what they would do. 

The researchers found that the bees chose to enter the room with the free-playing wooden balls 50% more often than choosing the room with the glued-down balls. Each bee rolled a wooden ball between 1 and 117 times throughout the experimental study without an incentive to do it – they could have bypassed the balls and gone straight to the pollen and sugar water. 

The researchers think that the Buff-Tailed Bumblebees were playing just for the fun of it. This experiment might be the first study to witness and document insects playing.

Not all of the Buff-Tailed Bumblebees played a lot. Younger bees rolled the balls – were playing – more often than the older bees. Male bees rolled the balls for a longer period of time than female bees of the same age.

Samadi Galpayage, a researcher at the Queen Mary University of London, said that the mental and physical exercise during play may be especially beneficial for young Bumblebees. “Because ball-rolling appears to be spontaneous and voluntary, and doesn’t have immediate or long-term benefits for the insects, they could be doing it to have a good time.” 

Gordon Burghardt at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, America, watched videos of the study. He said, “When you look at the videos of the bees on the balls, if you saw that in a dog, or a monkey, or even a bird, we’d have no problem calling it play.”

However, the Queen Mary University researchers said it was difficult to assess whether the bees were having fun. 

Journal reference: Animal BehaviourDOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2022.08.013

Buff-Tailed Bumblebee
Buff-Tailed Bumblebee

Location of photographs: Paris, France

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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