Bee holding a mini-ball. Photo: Lida Loukola

Bees have shown the capacity to solve some problems in the lab, performing simple tasks like pulling strings to obtain a food reward.

But new experiments show the insects can even improvise upon what they see to make their workload easier and more efficient, according to a new paper in Science.

Rolling balls on a platform to a designated space shows the bumblebees can see, repeat and even improve upon a set of visual instructions, the scientists contend.

“We wanted to explore the cognitive limits of bumblebees by testing whether they could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before by any individual in the evolutionary history of bees,” said Clint Perry, one of the lead authors, from the Queen Mary University of London, in a school statement.

The bees in the study were trained to know the correct location of a small ball on a platform.

Three groups of the insects had different preconditioning prior to the task. One group only saw the ball in the correct location, another saw the ball move to the correct location with a hidden magnet, and a third actually saw a previously trained bee move the farthest ball to the center of the location to obtain the reward of sugar water.

The bees that had a fellow insect show them the way were more efficient and successful than the other two groups, the scientists reported.

But some of the bees went even further with the cognitive showmanship. They would move the closest ball instead of the farthest, thereby saving themselves effort and time.

The exacting nature of the task may go far to show that even insects with tiny brains could be forced to make intelligent decision, based upon the environmental pressures.

“It may be that bumblebees, along with many other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to solve such complex tasks, but will only do so if environmental pressures are applied to necessitate such behaviors,” said Olli Loukola, another author.

“Such unprecedented cognitive flexibility hints that entirely novel behaviors could emerge relatively swiftly in species whose lifestyle demands advanced learning abilities, should relevant ecological pressures arise,” the article concludes.

Previous experiments showed that bees can move caps to access food stores – and also showed the ability to roll balls to get rewards, as reported in the journal Animal Cognition in 2014.