By David Wall, Mount Pleasant Master Gardener
We’ve all watched native, bumble and honey bees go about their daily task of gathering nectar and pollen before heading back to the hive to do wonderful things with the gatherings. Though we seldom pay attention, wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets all do the same. It’s almost as if they are programmed to be robots in accomplishing their tasks. BUT, as we are slowly learning, all of them like to play. Play? Yes, play. We normally associate play with larger brained animals, but playing by tiny brained insects is certainly a surprise.
Playing is defined as doing something not necessary for survival, is voluntary, differs from normal behavior, occurs in a stress-free environment, and is repeated but perhaps different each time. While all the above play to some extent, the art of playing is best personified by bumblebees!
In a large but closed environment, bumblebees were given small wooden balls., as a test to see if they could be trained to move the balls to a specific location for a reward – food. When the test began, the bees went after the balls grabbed them, and rolled them around, and then repeated the process with subsequent balls. While the experiment was begun with food as an incentive, scientists found that when the test period ended, the bees kept playing even without an incentive. Several of the balls were sprayed with different colors, but color had no real effect on the bumblebees’ behavior.
Test results indicate these insects have more complexity in their tiny brains (less than 2 cubic millimeters) than previously known, perhaps even emotions. Bumblebee emotions are something I’ve known for years as they angrily fly by at eye level telling me to leave their beloved okra flowers and then shooting me in the back if I don’t leave fast enough!!!