Buzz buzz! A bumblebee flies over your head, and lands on a nearby flower. Bumblebees are very important for habitats because they are pollinators. Bumblebees pollinate plants by moving pollen from one flower and moving it to another. These fuzzy friends help our crops grow. Bumblebees are little superheroes! Besides being super cool for all the work they do, scientists have discovered that bumblebees might play just like we do! In the past, scientists have found that a variety of mammals and birds play, but bumblebees are the first insects that have been shown to play. Play behavior is defined as an action that has no immediate benefit to the individual. Play does not have a purpose other than to have fun! In a recent experiment, scientists found that bumblebees enjoyed rolling around little wooden balls. In order to prove that the bumblebees were playing, scientists had to show that the bees were rolling the balls just for fun, and not for food or other resources. This experiment was done in 3 parts.
In the first part of the experiment, scientists wanted to know if bees were rolling balls for fun (showing play behavior) or for another reason like foraging for food. Bees could fly between their nest and a box. The box contained sugar and pollen in one area, and colorful balls in the other. By giving the bees plenty of food, the bees were less likely to forage for food. A divider was put in between the area with the food and the area with the plays so that the bees would not associate playing with the balls with getting food. If the bees learned that rolling the balls earned them food, then they would roll the balls for food, which is not play. Scientists recorded the bees and watched their behaviors in the box. During the experiment, 45 bees rolled balls 910 times! After a bee rolled a ball, they were more likely to roll another ball. The bees rolled the balls a variety of distances and lengths. This showed the scientists that the bees rolling the balls was not an accident. The scientists also compared the number of times the bees rolled balls with the number of times they foraged by visiting the sugar. Female bees tend to do more foraging than male bees, but the sexes rolled the balls similar amounts. This suggested to the scientists that ball rolling was not related to foraging, and might be play, since it was equal among male and female bees.
In the second part of the experiment, scientists wanted to know if bees of different ages played more with the balls. To test if younger bees or older bees played with the balls more, a similar box to the first experiment was made. In this box, bees were given lots of sugar and pollen, and given balls to play with. The scientists knew how old each bee was because they kept track of when each bee hatched from its egg. After the experiment, the scientists found that younger bees rolled more balls than older bees. In other animal species, play behavior is usually in younger individuals so this was another indication that the bees were playing.
In the third part of the experiment, scientists wanted to know if the bees enjoyed playing with the wooden balls. This test was a bit more complicated. Another box with sugar and pollen was made, but this time the inside of the box was colored either blue or yellow on the inside. Bees were first placed in a box of one color with balls, and then in a second box of a different color with no balls in it. Afterwards, the bees were given a choice between the yellow and blue boxes, and the bees chose the box that previously had balls in it. This showed the scientists that the bee’s choice between the boxes was influenced by ball rolling, and that the bees found the ball rolling enjoyable.
In this three part experiment, scientists found evidence that bumblebees can play by rolling balls. This makes bumblebees the first insects that have been found to play! So the next time you play soccer, invite a bumblebee!
Dona HS, Solvi C, Kowalewska A, Mäkelä K, MaBouDi H, Chittka L. Do bumble bees play?. Animal Behaviour. 2022 Dec 1;194:239-51.