Bees Learn From Culture & Experience

When “INSTINCT” IN BEES:TURNS OUT TO BE LEARNING JUST AS HUMANS DO. Bees Practice The Experimental Method, Observe Others & Transmit Knowledge To Others!

Bumblebees can experiment and learn to pull a string to get a sugar water reward and then pass that skill on to other bees.

This comforts a long-held opinion of mine. See:

There I claimed that:

“Innate Knowledge” is a stupid idea. The truth is the exact opposite: LEARNING IS EVERYWHERE, OUT THERE. Learning is the opposite of innate. This insight has tremendous consequences on our entire prehension of the world.

My reasoning was typical philosophy: well-informed general reasons. Now there is increasing evidence that not only big brained vertebrates, but smaller brained invertebrates learn.

Conclusion: we humans do not differ from other animals, even insects, in kind, but in the amount of capability we enjoy. Thus, if we want to be truly human as much as we cannot just lay there like cows.  If we want to be fully human we must learn more of what is significant, and learn how to learn it. We cannot just sit on our hands and do as Barack Obama, the do-not much not-so-funny clown in chief, did, obsess about easy one liners and sport scores.


Intelligence Is A Fact, Instinct Just A Vague Theory:

For years, cognitive scientist Lars Chittka was intimidated by studies of apes, crows, parrots, and other brainy giants. Crows make tools. And they obviously talk to each other (my personal observation in the mountains). From the latest research in Brazil, parrots seem to have advanced language among themselves (which we don’t understand yet, as it too fast and high pitch for humans to hear it, and there is too much “austerity” around to pay scientists to understand the world as much as they could).

Chittka worked on bees, and almost everyone assumed that the insects acted on so-called instinct, not intelligence. Instinct? Come again.

As Bumblebees Can Learn To Pull Strings, So Can Plutocrats. Thus We Need To Outlaw Such Pluto Strings

Hillary Pulling Out Her Reward? As Bumblebees Can Learn To Pull Strings, So Can Plutocrats. Thus We Need To Outlaw Such Pluto Strings

Sophisticated behavior from “instinct” is a rather stupid assumption, because it is a superfluous assumption: Who needs instinct to explain an animal’s behavior, when we have simple, old fashion intelligence to explain it? Well, speciesists! (Same as who needs the Big Bang, a theory, when we have Dark Energy, a fact, to explain the expansion of the universe.)

Indeed we know of intelligence (some people, and certainly children, can be observed to have it). We can observe intelligence, and roughly understand how it works (it works by establishing better neurology, that is, neurology which fits facts better).

We can define intelligence, we cannot define instinct. But what is an instinct? We can neither observe “instinct”, for sure, instead of learning. Nor can we give a plausible mechanism of how “instinct” would generate complex behaviors (DNA does not code for “instinct”).  

When carefully analyzed, complex behaviors turn out to be learned. In humans, social motivations such as the Will to Power, are primary, thus Chitkka was motivated by : “…a challenge for me: Could we get our small-brained bees to solve tasks that would impress a bird cognition researcher?”


Einstein Bumblebees & Their Superstrings:

Now, it seems his team has succeeded in duplicating, with insects, what many birds and mammals are famous for. It shows that bumblebees can not only learn to pull a string to retrieve a reward, but they can also learn this trick from other bees, even though they have no experience with such a task in nature. Christian Rutz, a bird cognition specialist at St. Andrews university in Scotland concludes that the study “successfully challenges the notion that ‘big brains’ are necessary for new skills to spread”.  

Chittka and his colleagues set up a clear plastic table barely tall enough to lay three flat artificial blue flowers underneath. Each flower contained a well of sugar water in the center and had a string attached that extended beyond the table’s boundaries. The only way the bumble bee could get the sugar water was to pull the flower out from under the table by tugging on the string.

The team put 110 bumblebees, one at a time, next to the table to see what they would do. Some tugged at the strings and gave up, but two actually kept at it until they retrieved the sugar water: two Einstein bees out of 110! In another series of experiments, the researchers trained the bees by first placing the flower next to the bee and then moving it ever farther under the table. More than half of the 40 bees tested learned what to do with the strings. See: .Associative Mechanisms Allow for Social Learning and Cultural Transmission of String Pulling in an Insect.

Next, the researchers placed untrained bees behind a clear plastic wall so they could see the other bees retrieving the sugar water. More than 60% of the insects that watched knew to pull the string when it was their turn. In another experiment, scientists put bees that knew how to pull the string back into their colony and a majority of the colony’s workers picked up string pulling by watching one trained bee do it when it left the colony in search of food. The bees usually learned this trick after watching the trained bee five times, and sometimes even after one single observation. Even after the trained bee died, string pulling continued to spread among the colony’s younger workers.   

But pulling a string does not quite qualify as tool use, because a tool has to be an independent object that wasn’t attached to the flower in the first place. Yet other invertebrates have shown they can use tools: Digger wasps pick up small stones and use them to pack down their burrow entrances, for example.


Bees: New Aplysias For Intelligence & Culture?

Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, following a mentor of his in Paris, worked on the brain of the giant California sea snail, Aplysia Californica with its 26,000 neurons. This enabled to progress in the understanding of basic learning and memory mechanisms. However, Aplysias are not into tools and culture. Bees are. Bees have a million neurons, and a billion synapses.

[The bee brain is only .5 mm; whereas the human brain is ~ 400 larger, thus 4x 10^2 larger, its volume is thus ~ 10^2 x 10^6 = 10^8 larger than that of the bee brain; thus scaled up, with the same neuronal density, the human brain should have 10^14 neurons! Which is the number of synapses in the human brain. The density of the bee brain Thus we see, in passing, that human neurons pack up much more power than bee neurons! That has got to be a quantitative difference…]

The discovery of bee culture involved almost 300 bees, documenting how string pulling spread from bee to bee in multiple colonies. Cognitive studies of vertebrates like birds and monkeys typically involve smaller tribal units (30, not 300). Thus the bee studies on culture, more broadly based, show better propagation (at least at this point). .

Clearly bees are equipped, psychobiologically, for the meta behavior known as creative culture: learning from others, while experimenting on one’s own. Thinkers of old used to believe these behaviors were exclusively humans: animals were machines (Descartes) and only man used tools (Bergson, who called man ‘Homo Faber”, Homo Worker)

That insect can learn and experiment, and have culture was obvious all along, according to my personal observations of wasps’ intelligence: when I threaten a wasp. It gets the message, and flies away (I have done the experiment hundreds of times; it does not work with mosquitoes). Reciprocally, if I try to get a wasp out from behind a window, it somewhat cooperates, instead of attacking me. Whereas if I come next to a nest, I will be attacked when my intent is deemed aggressive (reciprocally if a nest is established in a high traffic area, the culture of the local wasps makes it so that they will not attack).   

What is the neural basis for these “smarts”? Some say that the insects might not be all that intelligent, but that instead, “these results may mean that culture-like phenomena might actually be based on relatively simple mechanisms.” Hope springs eternal that, somehow, human intelligence is different.

Don’t bet on it. Studying how bees think will help us find how, and why, we think. And the first conclusion is that it matters what we do with our brains. If we want to rise above insects, we cannot mentally behave as if we were insects all day long. Being endowed with human intelligence is not just an honor, but a moral duty. (Learn that, clown in chief!)

Patrice Ayme’

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15 Responses to “Bees Learn From Culture & Experience”

  1. SDM Says:

    This is very revealing. According to neuroscience much of what we do is determined by the workings of the unconscious mind. The reptile brain so to speak is a very powerful influence on human behavior. This has been described as “hardwired” into us through evolution. The reptilian brain remains with us and is still an important part of how the mind works. As we share DNA with “lower” creatures, it should not surprise us that these ancient structures and functions developed early on in animal life and persist within us.

    Observations of other animals makes it quite clear there is intelligence at work in their behaviors. We are just another part of nature – not separate or distinct. Just as their is no mind-body separation. The mind is physical. No brain then no consciousness. Just add alcohol or some other mind altering substance to the body and the consciousness becomes altered. Brain damage affects consciousness. It is all one.


  2. Gloucon X Says:

    “Being endowed with human intelligence is not just an honor, but a moral duty.”

    So important! Should be posted in all public spaces. Thanks.


  3. indravaruna Says:

    Hi dear Patrice! You should read this Daily Mail (the most read newspaper in the world) article to see what the English think of France and the French:


  4. Paul Handover Says:

    It never fails to amaze me how dogs learn the most intricate patterns of behaviors of us humans. Not only learn them but also quickly they learn them. Plus, as you will undoubtedly know, their barks are a real language that in the face of an external perceived threat can unite a disparate number of dogs of different breeds into one cohesive force!


    • Paul Handover Says:

      Also reminds me that back in England, when Pharaoh was a younger dog being trained, the trainer said that when Pharaoh became an elderly dog to get him a GSD puppy. For not only would the puppy keep Pharaoh active but Pharaoh would teach the young puppy all that he knew.

      We followed that advice and embraced a puppy GSD back in the Spring of 2012: see

      To this day Cleo has not received one second of training from Jean and me yet ‘knows’ all our commands and instructions.


  5. Gmax Says:

    Yes it all makes sense. Intelligencr, not instinct is how to explain animals. Children lore represents animals like little humans. You are saying that anthropomorphy has a scientific basis?


  6. Nathan Curry Says:

    This is possibly your best post ever. It begs a lot of good questions.
    Because it looks carefully at culture and there is little finger pointing.

    The bee is indeed a brilliant group animal. And it has a rich culture. What you describe – this delineation between instinct and intelligence is important…and yet it is not separate.

    This does, naturally take a philosophic shift…because it is the ground of: what is our essence? what is learning? what is conditioning? what is ignorance? what is evolution?

    Clearly, the majority of organisms (if not all) communicate in some way. In the yoga sutras it states that one of the powers of refinement is understanding animal language. Yes, science is impacted by austerity and also limited by its structural bias…but there are those like Rupert Sheldrake who proffer up morphic resonance and the like..and this sense of a shared consciousness housed in a sort of shared awareness is there in species.

    One question I have for you Patrice…and it relates to how you challenged me -… it is this:

    Within the story of the underlying memes that underly our current culture…how can we learn anew?

    If you watch Hypernormalization by Adam Curtis (I am only part way through – one can see that power politics is a narrative and that narrative relates to religious views, insecurity and its violent biology, and this repeated story of empires and hegemony. But perception plays a large part in all of this drama too (and hence Curtis’s brilliant analysis of the impact of Freud’s nephew: Edward Burnay’s – the father of PR and the marketing revolution).

    Our institutions are for sale to the highest bidder, we are reckless and greedy, our hierarchies are built on sovereignty and profit and our science aids and abets this myopia. It’s technology supports the power structure of hegemony and patriarchy and it is like a juggernaut of vested interests and fear; a great beast that is out of control.

    That is the backdrop of the modern Homo sapiens. That is what he does. He invades. He commits genocide. His institutions are for sale and his science has taken a sad turn for the worse.

    In the 1960s, for a brief period,…women could hitch-hike without fear. That happened. It’s not viable today.

    Joseph Campbell once wrote:

    “When we talk about settling the world’s problems, we’re barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess. We are not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.”

    And he went on to say, that by doing that, if done with wisdom, you bring meaning and life to the chaos and the selfishness and the indifference. But:

    “Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?”

    The freedom we enjoyed briefly in the 60s is long gone. So too the innocence…so we are impacted by the external story…we interweave with it and as it.

    In the yoga sutras one of the powers of refinement is the capacity to understand specific animal languages. Yogis, through the ages have demonstrated this ability.

    Yoga, at it’s core, is a mental discipline. It views the mind as the source of pain…and when learned about in the right way, with the right attention (discipline means to learn in latin)…it is also the vehicle for emancipation from pain and ignorance.

    If you arrived on this planet as an alien tomorrow and you were of a certain intelligence….like a child in a moment of wisdom…many of our activities would appear stupid. Especially the way we “share” power and the fear underlying it.

    I once accused you of “angry projections” and you questioned that phrase with me recently.

    My challenge to you is this:

    This is a passage from the Course in Miracles:

    “The world we see merely reflects our own internal frame of reference—the dominant ideas, wishes and emotions in our minds. “Projection makes perception” (Text, p. 445). We look inside first, decide the kind of world we want to see and then project that world outside, making it the truth as we see it.

    We make it true by our interpretations of what it is we are seeing. If we are using perception to justify our own mistakes—our anger, our impulses to attack, our lack of love in whatever form it may take—we will see a world of evil, destruction, malice, envy and despair.

    All this we must learn to forgive, not because we are being “good” and “charitable,” but because what we are seeing is not true. We have distorted the world by our twisted defenses, and are therefore seeing what is not there. As we learn to recognize our perceptual errors, we also learn to look past them or “forgive.” At the same time we are forgiving ourselves, looking past our distorted self-concepts to the Self That God created in us and as us.

    Sin is defined as “lack of love” (Text, p. 11). Since love is all there is, sin in the sight of the Holy Spirit is a mistake to be corrected, rather than an evil to be punished. Our sense of inadequacy, weakness, and incompletion comes from the strong investment in the “scarcity principle” that governs the whole world of illusions. From that point of view, we seek in others what we feel is wanting in ourselves. We “love” another in order to get something ourselves. That, in fact, is what passes for love in the dream world. There can be no greater mistake than that, for love is incapable of asking for anything.”

    I believe you and I share an affection and a respect for David Bohm. Strings always seemed stupid and lacking elegance to me after Bohm’s hologrpaphic template. Now above you see strong words and the input of a spiritual organizing power. But, as individuals it is interesting to see what informs our “intelligence.” There is the voice of reason, of meaning, of the search for meaning, of fear…so many voices. Indeed, Campbell defined comparative mythology as the study of “what is talking?” Is it fear, ignorance, pride, insight, intelligence…what?

    In the yoga sutras – they say what you call instinct is an earlier adapted behavior…an intelligent moment that became instinctual – because it was positively adaptive for the organism. That is evolution by natural selection. It’s just happening in a realm where the senses cannot film – within a realm of our inner consciousness….somewhere it is said that a radio is not an orchestra. It does not contain one and yet it can pick up radio waves – a non-scientific mind would see it as magic – somehow the radio encapsulates the sound of an orchestra (and many other things)…I see the mind and the neurology of learning in a similar way – it impacts what we tune in to…but it is not the whole story of perception. This, below is excerpted from a recent New York times argicles

    “This is a film about a curious afternoon in the summer of 2016, when The New York Times came to make a polite visit to the BBC, in order to enclose one of England’s most unusual journalists within its own sphere of influence.” For some readers, these major-brand affiliations may be ennobling, and inspire confidence. For those more suspicious, the names of the mighty news organizations will be proof that deeper truth has, like Elvis, left the building.

    Curtis prefers you to be suspicious, alert to bullying ideologies that whisper in the guise of neutral authority (like “The Paper of Record”). And yet he wants you to believe him. Why shouldn’t he? And so a Curtis account of our meeting would reveal, through his dry, airy, insinuating narration, what you’re really seeing: not simply a jaunty middle-aged American stepping into a famous lobby to greet a boyish, alert, middle-aged Brit, but two media conglomerates in communion as well. The voice is essential. For, as Curtis would be the first to tell you, systems of power, influence and control are extremely difficult to depict on camera.”

    Again my question:

    Within the story of the underlying memes that underly our current culture…how can we learn anew?

    How do we solve homelessness?
    How do we solve the refugee crisis? Which will get worse?
    What is immune to the threat of the modern elitist plutocratic power structure? Mother Theresa and her nuns? Steiner and his farmers and teachers? Krishnamurti and his schools? Ricardo Semler and his people centered company Semco? What is DARPA doing that supports life? What can be learned from the Rocky Mountain Institute? Where is the shift in values within the story of our unfolding?

    What would Buckminster Fuller do differently today if he were alive…how would he harness technology and good will? It might be an approach immune to the anger born of willful hate and stupidity?


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Hi Nathan, sorry I did not react faster, somehow WordPress (not me) decided to block you. I was travelling (mostly in my head, actually, hahaha). I do think that the intelligence of (apparently modest) insects is indeed very important, and changes completely the way we should be looking at fellow animals. I had, by happenstance and coincidence, a spectacular example of intelligence in a… butterfly, actually a large nightmoth, yesterday.

      I don’t actually believe that “instinct”, stricto sensu, exists. For two reasons: we don’t need it (intelligence is enough) and its mechanism cannot be conceived (instinct-like mechanisms, tropisms (“turnings”) and propensities and capabilities do exist, of course).

      Quantum Theory is intrinsically holographic in its axiomatics… As it exists. I actually believe it cannot be so (be it only because entanglement cannot go beyond the event horizon, or can it?) Now to react to the rest of your interesting comment may take a while.


  7. Nathan Curry Says:

    And by the way I am not taking a moral stance so much here. I will not say anger is wrong. I would say it is natural. But I would also say that that is the way of our botter selves. To overwhelm and attack. It is part of the defense-attack paradigm that limits the mind. You can dispute it – get angry about self-centered monks and Tony Blair and the cabals of the world….and rightly so…it can move and inspire you…but if you let it rule the mind…you are lost in reactionary waters.

    A samurai once went to avenge his brother who had been killed by a man he knew. As he reached the man, the man spat in his face. He put his sword away and left. The spittle had made him angry…and those men have a code. Never kill in anger. Without ethics, we are devoid of a backbone


  8. Nathan Curry Says:

    And without imagination…we are stuck with the myopia of man and his present paralysis.


  9. dominique deux Says:

    There is strong evidence for intelligence/learning/culture.

    There is also strong evidence for instinct.

    How about, “both play a role”? And the repartition of these roles would obey no general rule, but be a product of evolution. Thus results on one species would be of little value for another species, however close.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      As I said to Nathan. “Instinct” is an illusion. It’s all learning, or so I think… although even morphogenesis is part learning, an entanglement with the environment, so…


  10. Nathan Curry Says:

    Hi Patrice
    Thank-you for your kind words.

    A two year old meets a candle.
    She touches the flame.
    1. An impression is created in the mind
    2. That impression inspires a habit. A reaction in the moment and a paired association with the flame.

    That is one feature of learning.

    Now the Indians say that cycle of experience – impression (vasana)
    And causal impression – habit (samsara) operates on many subtle levels. Some become propensities coded into our DNA. The baby knows where to go for milk. But it’s also the interface with the world and the learning curve therein.

    Entanglement is a mystery we are still learning about. Either way the holographic universe as seen by John makes sense to me. On the subject of might like this dialogue with him:

    I’d be interested to hear what you make of the documentary Hypernormalization. Warmly Nathan


  11. Nathan Curry Says:

    As seen by Bohm not John. Autocorrect grr


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