Bumblebees are adept at learning complex tasks. This one is rolling a ball to a slot in return for sugar. (Photo courtesy of the Lida Loukola/Queen Mary University of London)

The other day, a sweet bumblebee was bouncing around in the dog’s play yard, enjoying the different clover blossoms. Unfortunately, the large fuzzy insect caught the eye of one of the young dogs, who started bouncing along with it. At first, it seemed like harmless play, but as all pet parents know, dynamics can change in an instant.

Suddenly, the bee decided that in fact she did not like this, and instead of flying off, she turned and started jousting with the dog’s head. The dog was thinking what a great snack this would be and was snapping at the dancing bee. The bee, thinking that she was going to land a good sting on the dog, was darting back and forth trying to get in for a landing. Seeing nothing but visions of a giant, swollen muzzle from the sting, I was trying to grab the dog.

This went on for a minute and instead of giving the “leave-it” command as the trainer has taught us, I instead wished for the bee to stop moving so that I could grab the errant dog. Suddenly, the bee just dropped to the ground and sat perfectly still. It was not knocked to the ground but instead flew to the dirt. I grabbed the dog’s collar in that stunned instant and pulled back. The bee then took off in a straight trajectory of 45 degrees, flying at high speed. Frankly, I have never seen a bee fly that fast and straight.

According to Wikipedia, “The word bumblebee is a compound of bumble and bee — bumble meaning to hum, buzz, drone, or move ineptly or flounderingly.” The fast, straight flight was an interesting contrast. In addition, it is presumed that this was a female bee because only the girls have stingers and do the foraging. And unlike honeybees, the bumblebee can sting over and over and not lose the stinger or die.

It seems this was a worker bee out collecting pollen and nectar for the hive when she was threatened by an animal. Interestingly, literature says that most bumble bees will leave people and animals alone. But instead of flying off, she decided to stand her ground enjoying the chemical free landscape.

But the real fascination was that I gave the bee a command but did not speak it. I just wished it as a thought. And the bee read it like a command. It all took place in an instant. In one article, it is explained that bees communicate through head-butting, jostling each other, and dancing. But I am wondering if telepathy is not also on the table. The hive mentality.

The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines telepathy as the supposed communication of thoughts or ideas by means other than the known senses. Many pet parents swear that their pets know what they are thinking. But insects?

It turns out that bees are actually quite intelligent. Although they have small brains, it is, as we learned with crows, the size of the brain compared to the body size that’s important. And in this case, a bee’s brain contains almost a million of the neurons that are attributed to learning in higher animals.

Scientists are realizing that there is little that we know about small brains. But they are starting to admit that they can be quite complex. It is difficult to study insect intelligence and to design the studies, but in fact they have done this with bees and found them to be quite adept at learning complex tasks in a number of different manners. What is more interesting is that the bees were able to improve upon the task, not just copy it.

In one study, according to articles in the PBS News Hour and Christian Science Monitor, “They set up a test where a bee could land on a small table with a ball and a central hole. If the bee rolled the ball into the hole, scientists would reward it with a snack of sweet sucrose solution. But while a few super-smart bees were able to solve the problem on their own, most needed some help. Researchers trained initial bees by using a bumblebee-decorated stick to show how to push the ball to the goal. Later, bees could watch previously trained live bee demonstrators for a chance to learn socially. Another group watched a ‘ghost’ demonstration, where a magnet hidden under the table dragged the ball into the hole, and a control group was presented with a ball already sitting on top of the hole.”

The article continues, “It turns out bumblebees catch on quickly when there’s sugar involved. Rookies had three chances to watch a veteran do the trick, after which all were able to imitate the teacher. Eight out of 10 bees could learn from the magnet, while only three were able to figure out the task with no demonstration.”

Another study found that bumblebees rely on their intelligence to go about their daily tasks. Not only does the use of insecticides, such as neonicotinoids, reduce the size of the colonies by as much as 55 percent, but it causes dysfunction in the bee’s brain.

Bumblebees are true pollinators, and according to some experts, their populations have been reduced by 85 to 90 percent due to habitat destruction and chemicals, among other factors. They are the most threatened with extinction if man does not change his ways and start connecting more with all creatures, great and small.

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