Surprisingly smart bees logically distinguish the best flowers!

It might sound a little far-fetched but bumblebees (any member of the genus Bombus) and Pavlov’s dogs do actually have something in common! Both have exceptional in abilities allowing them to associate two things that they have never seen before.

“A foraging bumblebee.” (Credit: SpacialAwareness)

Despite having tiny brains, bumblebees are smart enough to determine which colored flowers are nectar-rich just by watching and learning from other bees’ behavior. This is found in a recent study conducted by researchers from Queen Mary, University of London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Testing how bees learn

“A bee forages at a brightly colored feeding platform.” (Credit: Erika Dawson)

Bumblebees’ learning capabilities can be explained as a form of associative learning. As mentioned by Breed and Moore (2012: 133), “Associative learning is [the association] of certain conditions or actions with certain outcomes.” In this case by watching fellow bumblebees, they learn to associate an irrelevant stimulus (flower color) with a relevant stimulus (food which is sugar).

When bumblebees forage for food, it is suggested that copying flower color choices allows worker bees to be more efficient. This also eliminates the exhaustive process of searching every flower just to obtain nectar.

In the tests, bees first learnt to equate flowers with food (sugar) with the presence of other foragers. The bees then observed the flower color choices of their companions through a screen. When let into the foraging area, these test bees followed the choices of their companions unlike bees who have never gone through this test (Dawson et al. 2013).

Bees are picky foragers?

Bees also evaluate the choices of their fellow bumblebees! Test bees which watched other bees visit bitter flowers learnt to avoid them completely. These flowers were made using quinine – a flavor used in tonic water, which bees dislike.

However they are unable to avoid toxins purely by observation alone as shown in another study.




“A bee forages at a brightly colored feeding platform.” by Erika Dawson. Live Science, 4 Apr 2013. (accessed on 6 Apr 2013).

“Bumblebee” by SpacialAwareness. Flickr, 1 Aug 2008. (accessed on 6 Apr 2013).

“Bumblebees Use Logic to Find the Best Flowers,” Queen Mary, University of London. Science Daily, 4 Apr 2013. (accessed on 5 Apr 2013).

Dawson, E. H., A. Avarguès-Weber, L. Chittka & E. Leadbeater, 2013. Learning by Observation Emerges from Simple Associations in an Insect Model. Current Biology, Available online 4 April 2013, ISSN 0960-9822, 10.1016/j.cub.2013.03.035.

“Total Buzz Kill: Metals in Flowers May Play Role in Bumblebee Decline,” University of Pittsburgh. Science Daily, 2 Apr 2013. (accessed 6 Apr 2013).