A new study is helping transform the idea that culture is reserved for humans, primates, and birds, offering evidence of "culture-like phenomena" including social learning in bumblebees. Researchers at London's Queen Mary University trained bumblebees to open a puzzle box holding a sugar solution, either by pushing a red tab clockwise or a blue tab counter-clockwise, while other bees watched, per the BBC. When these observer bees got a shot at the puzzle, they almost always chose the same method witnessed, even after the alternative was known. This preference "was maintained by whole colonies of bees, with a mean of 98.6% of box openings made using the taught method," according to a release.
The observer bees opened 28 boxes a day on average, whereas control bees that didn’t see a demonstration opened just one. In further evidence of social learning, researchers found that adding a demonstrator bee to a larger colony meant that population would overwhelmingly adopt the demonstrator's method of opening the box. "Bumblebees—and, indeed, invertebrates in general—aren't known to show culture-like phenomena in the wild," says Dr. Alice Bridges, lead author of the study published in PLOS Biology, which expanded upon earlier research. Yet "we saw the spread and maintenance of a behavioural 'trend' in groups of bumblebees, similar to what has been seen in primates and birds."
According to the release, "if bumblebees are capable of this, too, this could potentially explain the evolutionary origin of many of the complex behaviours seen among social insects. It might be possible that what now appears instinctive could have been socially learnt, at least originally." As study co-author Dr. Lars Chittka notes, "new innovations can spread like social media memes through insect colonies, indicating that they can respond to wholly new environmental challenges much faster than by evolutionary changes." While Chittka argues bees are "far smarter creatures than a lot of people give them credit for," Bridges tells NPR that animal culture might actually be "very widespread." (More bumblebees stories.)