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Bumblebees Love to Play with Wooden Balls

Updated: Apr 10

Bumblebees Love to Play with Wooden Balls

Recent research done at the Queen Mary University of London has documented what might just be the first proof of insects having the cognitive ability to play for fun. The study comprised of releasing 45 buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris bombax) into an arena where they had to pass through 2 adjacent rooms-one with wooden balls glued down, the other with free-rolling wooden balls- to reach sugar and pollen at the other end of the arena. A previous experiment by the same team working at the same university consisted of training bumblebees to play “soccer for a food reward in 2017” (Wetzel, 2017). This study, however, gave no incentive or reward whatsoever to play with the balls.

Nevertheless, the bumblebees used the latter zone “50% more often” than the former “over 18 3-hour sessions,” just so they could take time to roll around the wooden balls (Wetzel, 2022).  Moreover, younger bumblebees tended to roll more balls than older bees, just as human children play more than human adults. Besides bumblebees rolling around wooden balls with no incentive other than pure enjoyment being absolutely adorable, this study has important implications for how bees ought to be treated. If bumblebees can have minds of their own to that extent, that might mean other bees are capable of the same thing; it might even imply insect consciousness. As such, perhaps bumblebees, and other bees capable of such complex behavior, need to be treated with more respect and civility, such as with cats and dogs. This might open up a whole debate about animal rights extended to sentient insects also. Spreading the word about this could help change perceptions of bees, and/or might incentivize further efforts to protect them and care for them. 

Wetzel, C. (2022, Nov 2). Bumblebees rolling balls may be first evidence of first play. NewScientist.

Galpayage Dona, H. S., Solvi, C., Kowalewska, A., Mäkelä, K., MaBouDi, H., & Chittka, L. (2022). Do bumble bees play? Animal Behaviour.

Written by intern Sophie Dutsch-Zdanowicz

Environmental Science Major

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