Bumblebees at Play 

Author: Katherine Mihalczo  

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London have recently observed play behavior in a species of bumblebee. These fuzzy little creatures rolled around on toy balls for no reason other than their own enjoyment!   

Most people could name many animals that play. From the obvious dogs and cats to the more mysterious crows and whimsical dolphins, we know play behavior is observed in many kinds of animals. But what about animals that we tend to view as less advanced? PhD researcher H. Samadi Galpayage Dona sought to discover if play behavior can be observed in insects, specifically bumblebees.  

Dona’s research focused on whether bumblebees of the species Bombus terrestris would show any reaction to objects that did not resemble anything they would normally encounter in the wild, even when they did not receive a tangible reward for the interaction. The bees were allowed three hours of access per day to a bee-sized colored room with toy balls for eighteen days. The research separated the data based on the age and sex of the bumblebee, to try to see if these factors changed the way they bees interacted with the “toys.”  

But how did the bees play with the balls? Dona found that when presented with this opportunity, bumblebees rolled the balls around with their bodies. The behavior was not physically similar to movements made by bees while either foraging on flowers or mating. Since the rolling behavior was not associated with any reward for the bees – they did not receive any food for interacting with the balls – the researchers deduced that this behavior serves no "purpose" for the creatures and can therefore be categorized as play.  

After the bees spent time playing, the researchers found the bees developed a preference for which bee-sized room they entered when play objects were absent. When given a choice between two empty rooms, the bumblebees preferred to go into rooms that were the same color as the rooms that they previously played in. The researchers deduce that this is because the bees associate the color of the room with the intrinsic reward of play and therefore find that color more appealing.  

It may be hard to believe since these tiny creatures are so different from most animals that we associate with play behaviors, but this research indicates that bumblebees are capable of this complex behavior. The fact that an animal with a brain and biology so totally different from ours could be capable of play behavior has interesting implications. It shows us that insects are much more complex than we originally thought, and that they may, in fact, lead rich inner lives.