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If bumblebees can play, does it mean they have feelings? This study suggests yes

In an experiment conducted by researchers at Queen Mary University of London, bees could make their way through an unobstructed path to a feeding area or opt for a detour into a chamber with wooden balls (toys). Many took the detour.
Odd Andersen
/
Associated Press
In an experiment conducted by researchers at Queen Mary University of London, bees could make their way through an unobstructed path to a feeding area or opt for a detour into a chamber with wooden balls (toys). Many took the detour.

When put to the test, bees have proved over and over again that they've got a lot more to offer than pollinating, making honey and being fiercely loyal to a queen. The industrious insects can count and alter their behavior when things seem difficult, and now some scientists say there's proof they also like to play.

A study recently published in Animal Behavior suggests that bumblebees, when given the chance, like to fool around with toys.

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London conducted an experiment in which they set up a container that allowed bees to travel from their nest to a feeding area. But along the way, the bees could opt to pass through a separate section with a smattering of small wooden balls. Over 18 days, the scientists watched as the bees "went out of their way to roll wooden balls repeatedly, despite no apparent incentive to do so."

The finding suggests that like humans, insects also interact with inanimate objects as a form of play. Also similar to people, younger bees seemed to be more playful than adult bees.

"This research provides a strong indication that insect minds are far more sophisticated than we might imagine," Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioral ecology at Queen Mary University of London, who led the study, said in a statement.

Earlier studies have shown that the black and yellow bugs are willing to learn new tricks in exchange for food or other rewards, so in this case Chittka and his team set out to create conditions that would eliminate external variables. They made sure that the bees had acclimated to their new home and that their environment was stress free.

In one experiment, the bees, which were tracked by age and sex, could make their way through an unobstructed path to a feeding area or opt for a detour into a chamber with the wooden balls. Many took the detour. Video shows the chubby insects clinging to balls (about twice the size of the bees) and maneuvering them around. In more comical moments, some bees appeared to do somersaults while holding on. Other times they would walk in reverse, pulling the ball with them — an unnatural movement for bumblebees.

"There are lots of animals who play just for the purposes of enjoyment, but most examples come from young mammals and birds," said Chittka.

The study's first author, Samadi Galpayage, who is a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London, added that it is yet more evidence that insects may be capable of experiencing feelings.

"They may actually experience some kind of positive emotional states, even if rudimentary, like other larger fluffy, or not so fluffy, animals do. This sort of finding has implications to our understanding of sentience and welfare of insects and will, hopefully, encourage us to respect and protect life on Earth ever more," she said in the statement.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.