By Sarah Hewitt
A bumblebee flies up to inspect a flower, looking for a taste of nectar. It buzzes around a bit and realises that something is different. The bee can see the flower but cannot reach it.
That is because the “flower” – actually a blue plastic disc with sugar water in the centre – is sitting underneath a sheet of transparent plastic. Luckily for the bee, there is a string attached to the flower. All it has to do is pull on the string, haul out the flower, and sip its reward. So it does.
“When we first started the string-pulling experiments, it was almost a joke,” says Lars Chittka of the Queen Mary University of London in the UK. “I laughed my head off when I first saw it. It just looked very funny.”
But there is more. Once one bee figured out what it needed to do to access the artificial flower, other bees that were looking on learned the string-tugging trick themselves. The technique even outlasted the original successful bee. It became part of the colony’s skillset, transmitted from bee to bee after the first string-pulling bee had died.