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Eight Year Olds Publish Bee Study In Biology Letters

December 27, 2010

It’s not everyday that you are going to come across a peer-reviewed research article published by bunch of cool and smart eight year old kids. In last week’s early online edition of Biology Letters a new study has been published by 25 eight-to-ten-year old kids from Blackawton primary school in UK.  The study reports about how bumble bees use different color and pattern identification strategies to determine which flower to choose for getting nectar and which ones to avoid. What’s unique about this study is that the kids came up with the questions they wanted to study and then they designed the experiments themselves and did the data analysis (ofcourse under supervision and guidance of their teachers and neuroscientist Dr R.B. Lotto of the lottolab). The article is fully written by children in their own language (except the abstract) and cites no references. Lack of any references made it difficult to get published in peer-reviewed journal initially but the authors of the paper insisted that the it was not the historical studies which made them do the study, rather it was their own interest, curiosity and observations which prompted them to carry out the study. The article is not only informative but fun to read. You will rarely see sentences such as “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before” in a research article. Figures and tables are hand-drawn and one of the section title has also got some sound effects “Training phase 2 (‘the puzzle’ . . .duh duh duuuuhhh)”. But the article is not just about the cuteness but it has got some serious scientific observations.  As the authors themselves point out in the article that This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before.” The experiments are very sound, well thought of and results are well discussed and most of all after reading the paper you can get the feeling how much the kids enjoyed doing this study and how proud they are of their findings. I will summarize their findings here but I will also recommend all of you to go and read the article, I am sure it will motivate the kid inside you to ask some basic scientific questions and make you do some funful research! The article is available for free until new year eve.

The main question which young scientists wanted to investigate was if bumblebees can solve the complex puzzle of identifying color or spatial patterns in a complex scenario and if they can learn to find the “good flower” based on these cues. “It is interesting to ask this question, because in their habitat there may be flowers that are bad for them, or flowers from which they might already have collected nectar. This would mean that it is important for bees to learn which flower to go to or to avoid” (quoted from the article).

They designed a Plexiglass bee arena (1 m cube) with four panels as shown above. Each panel consisted of two color patterns and at the center of each colored-circle, there was a tube feeder which either consisted of sugar water, salty water or no water. The bees were first trained with the above pattern where sugar water was present all the time in the 4-center colors (either blue or yellow), while salty water  was present in the surrounding colors. This pattern kind of crudely represented a two color flower pattern. If the bees chose a random strategy, then 50% of times , they will encounter salty or sugary water; same will happen if they chose to follow a particular color. But if they were able to learn the color pattern to identify the sugar water, they will be more successful in getting the sweet water. In order to eliminate any bias due to any odor preference or contamination, the trained bees were let to choose the circles without any salt or sugar water in the feeders.

You can see from the tabulated results that about 90% of bees learnt the color patterns and chose to go to center feeders. The notations O,Y,B/Y, B etc are for identifying the individual bees which were marked as Orange, yellow, Blue Yellow and so on. As the article reports, somehow the yellow marked bee never came out of the bee arena and that explains why there is no data for the Y bee!

In second set of experiments, they maintained the two color pattern, but changed the central four colors to be green while the surrounding colors were changed to either yellow or blue. The purpose of this was to see if bees went to the central circles due to spatial preference or due to pattern learning process. When the central colors were changed to green, only 30.9% of the bees went to the central circles, implying that the pattern cues also play an important role for bees in identifying the right flower, not just the spatial cues. It also showed that it was not just the color or the spatial location, but the overall pattern cues which bees utilize in making decisions. Some of the bees also preferred to go to their favorite colors. Overall, the findings suggest that bumblebees employ a complex strategy of pattern and spatial cues in identifying the right flowers and they can memorize these patterns which helps them in deciding between the “right” vs “wrong” flower. Young researchers in this paper also say that ” bees have personality and have their personal ‘likings’.” The article concludes with the following paragraph:

Before doing these experiments we did not really think a lot about bees and how they are as smart as us. We also did not think about the fact that without bees we would not survive, because bees keep the flowers going. So it is important to understand bees. We discovered how fun it was to train bees. This is also cool because you do not get to train bees everyday. We like bees. Science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before. (Bees—seem to—think!)

Well done kids and along with your bee study results, I agree with one of your other important discovery– Science is cool and fun— Yes it is for sure!

Image credit: 1) Flickr user Ian Kirk, 2) Pattern, Data table: Biology Letters and Authors of the article.

Article: Blackawton bees; Blackawton, P. S. et al. Biol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2010.1056

Also read commentary on the article by Laurence T. Maloney, and Natalie Hempel de Ibarra

Filed under: Children,Research,Science

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