Bumblebees playing with wooden balls would be the first proof that insects can play

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Man is not the only species that manipulates objects just for fun and entertainment. Many other mammals, as well as some birds, have also shown behaviors associated with play. What about insects? Until now, no one has really explored the question. A team from Queen Mary University of London is proving that bumblebees can play. This discovery has implications for our understanding of the sensitivity and well-being of insects, and will be the first evidence that insects can play.

Play is a phenomenon observed in many species. Scientists believe that play contributes to the healthy development of individuals and to the maintenance of their cognitive and motor skills – which are important for search strategies, for example. Most of the observed cases involved mammals or large-brained birds, but few studies focused on other animals. And for good reason: it is not so easy to define and study play behavior in invertebrates.

To be considered as such, the gambling behavior must be of no interest other than entertainment; it should not be done to get food, shelter or a mate. It must be spontaneous, spontaneous and rewarding in itself (therefore not associated with any reward), repeated, but not stereotyped. The motor actions it induces must be different from those used for a well-defined function (pairing test, foraging) and it must be initiated when the animal is in a “relaxed” state. ” This is to distinguish play from other seemingly useless stress-induced behaviors, such as repetitive stomping or rocking seen in caged zoo animals. “, identify the researchers.

Is the behavior motivated only by play?

In general, there are three broad categories of play behavior: social play, locomotor play and object play. Social play involves playful interactions between animals, often between children. Musculoskeletal play involves intense and sustained body movements, such as running and jumping, without an apparent need to do so. Finally, object play is about inanimate objects. Very few studies have reported a similarity of social play in ants and young wasps.

A study published in 2017 showed that bumblebees can be trained to push small balls to a specified location to get a food reward. But during this experiment, it appeared that some bumblebees often pushed the balls without getting any particular benefit from them. This observation prompted the current study: do bumblebees push the balls just for fun?

To prove this, the researchers observed the behavior of a colony of 45 bumblebees (28 female, 17 male), aged 1 to 23 days, facing 18 small wooden balls; six balls were painted purple, six others yellow and the last six retained their original wooden appearance. The nest is connected to an arena through an acrylic tunnel; this tunnel leads directly to an open area, at the end of which are two feeders (containing sugar or pollen).

Experimental setup. The bumblebees leave their nest, pass through the tunnel and move freely in the object area before reaching the feeding area. Note that the location of sucrose and pollen is changed each day to prevent bumblebees from developing a sideways bias. © Galpayage et al.

On either side of this area without any obstacles are two sections of 9 balls (three of each color); in one the balls are mobile, in the other they are fixed to the ground. As insects exited the tunnel, they had the option of traveling along a clear path to reach the feeders or deviating from this path to areas containing stationary and moving balls. The experiment lasted 3 hours, every day for 18 days. Every day, all objects and the experimental arena were cleaned to remove any odor signals left by the insects.

Beings with more sophisticated minds than we think

The team observed that bumblebees chose to enter the moving ball area 50% more often than the stationary ball area; the color of the ball has no particular influence. A total of 910 ball rolling actions were recorded. Taken individually, the insects rolled the balls from 1 to 117 times during the experiment, despite not being prompted to do so! Repeated behavior suggested that this shift was beneficial.

The team also observed that younger bumblebees, especially those between 3 and 7 days old, rolled balls more often than older ones – mirroring the behavior seen in humans and other mammals, where young play more readily than adults. The experiment also showed that male bumblebees rolled balls longer than female bumblebees. This can be explained by the fact that, in nature, females are responsible for providing food to the colony; guided by their instincts, therefore they are more busy fulfilling their primary duty than having fun, unlike men.

Experimental setup to determine whether bumblebees are motivated solely by the pleasure of playing. © Galpayage et al.

To prove that the insects moved the balls just for fun, the researchers conducted another experiment in which 42 bumblebees had access to two colored rooms, one containing the moving balls and the one is nothing (4 hours per day, for 2 consecutive days. ). When given a choice between two chambers, either of which contained balls, the bumblebees showed a clear preference for the color previously associated with the presence of wooden balls.

These results clearly show that the goal sought is pure entertainment. Rolling balls does not contribute to survival techniques and is done under stress-free conditions. ” This shows, again, that despite their small size and small brains, [les bourdons] is more than just a little robotic creature. They can actually experience even rudimentary positive emotional states like other large animals do. said Samadi Galpayage, a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London and first author of the study.

The mind of insects is therefore more sophisticated than we think. ” We are making growing evidence of the need to do all we can to protect insects, which are miles away from the brainless, emotionless creatures traditionally believed to be. concludes Professor Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioral Ecology at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of the study.

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