Bees: a CNRS researcher in Toulouse studies the Intelligence Quotient of these insects

May 20 is designated by the United Nations as World Bee Day. The opportunity to look into the infinitely small and discover the work of a researcher from Toulouse on the intelligence of these insects.

According to the UN (the United Nations), 90% of the world’s wild flowering plants, 75% of food crops and 35% of agricultural land worldwide are dependent on insects and other pollinating species. like bats and hummingbirds. This shows the importance of the role of bees in safeguarding ecosystems and the importance of devoting the May 20 day worldwide. The issue of its protection is also central to food security concerns.

The honey bee is an emblematic species, a highly studied sentinel species and for which we have the most data to assess environmental degradation. Through this World Bee Day, it is above all about biodiversity day.

Mathieu Lihoreau – CNRS researcher

A team of scientists from Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse is dedicated to studying the intelligence of honeybees and bumblebees. To protect bees from the decline of their populations, it is essential to study their behavior and their ability to adapt to environmental changes.

Researcher at the Animal Cognition Research Center of the Center for Integrative Biology of Toulouse (CNRS), Dr. Mathieu Lihoreau publishes “What do bees think of” ( HumenSciences). A book that summarizes fifteen years of reflection on a species that is at the bottom of the food chain and yet important for pollination.

For the ethologist, it is no coincidence that this insect is the subject of numerous studies. We know that the honey bee, which represents one species among the 20,000 known species, has been domesticated since antiquity for its honey. Aristotle makes reference to it in the first texts and draws the parallel between the organization of the hive and human society, explains Mathieu Lihoreau.

His work has enabled him to decipher different aspects of the behavior of bees and to construct a representation of their inner life.

However, the bee has not revealed all its secrets, it is possible to go even further in the exploration of the forager, such as entering its brain.

I summarize 100 years of academic research on insect behavior and cognition. We realize today that their intellectual capacities are very elaborate despite a ridiculously small brain of about 1 cubic millimeter. The honey bee, a model species for scientific research, learns to recognize smells, shapes and textures. They know how to transfer information symbolically with the dance of the bee, for example. When a forager arrives in the hive, in the dark she dances and indicates the exact position of a food source outside the hive.

To protect a living organism, it is necessary to actually know it, this makes it possible to understand the threats and find concrete measures for its protection. For example, 30-40 years ago, alerts were issued in France as in North America when honey bees and also all insects pollinators have seen their populations decline sharply. Basic research on the behavior of these bees has shown that pesticides have an extremely harmful role on beneficial insects and do not sort out pests and beneficial insects. The use of neurotoxins had an impact on the brain of bees and more broadly, on the functioning of entire colonies. “Without killing the bees, it destroys certain neurons, it prevents them from thinking, from foraging”notes Mathieu Lihoreau.

Bees have emotions and today we are wondering about the limits of the intelligence of these insects. “At the scientific level, we realize that in fifteen years we have made a lot of progress in knowledge”.

We are developing a new cognition sensor“, details the scientist. It is an automated IQ (Intelligence Quotient) test for bees. In nature, near the hive, there is a labyrinth in which the bee will have to solve a problem to recover a reward. this test, the bee is attracted to the entrance of the labyrinth by a little sugar water, it is recognized and marked with a bib thanks to a camera.To be able to obtain more nectar, it will have to find the path identified by a color that will lead it either to the reservoir of sugar water which will be a reward or to the reservoir of salt water, the punishment.The insect will be entitled to a second chance and can make the decision to follow the light which will lead it The bee will learn to solve this task more or less quickly depending on its exposure to pesticides.

The test will be carried out throughout the territory of Occitania until October, end of the season for foraging.

With this automated system, it is a question of collecting a maximum of data and testing the IQ of a maximum of bees in the apiary. The objective is to have a very detailed knowledge of their cognitive capacities in order to be able to characterize the quality of the environment. Many factors act individually on the cognitive capacity of bees such as water and air pollutants, heavy metals, the variety of pollens available, the quality of the nectar of the surrounding flowers, but we do not know how they interact between them.

Excerpt from the book “What do bees think about” by Mathieu Lihoreau. (Editing
HumenSciences)

(…) For a bee, foraging is therefore a task of daily life. At first glance, this may seem very simple. To our human eyes and nostrils, the flowers that bees visit are very colorful and fragrant. We would then be tempted to say to ourselves that it is enough to let ourselves be guided by our senses. However, if we try to put ourselves in the head of a bee (its soap bubble) for a few seconds, the problem appears much more complex.

The exercise requires a bit of imagination. On the one hand, you have to see the world very big, through a pair of faceted eyes, to fly over it frantically flapping your wings, to smell it through articulated antennae, to taste it using the legs and a trunk, and all this at an average travel speed of 20 km/h. On the other hand, you might experience, like me, the fear of being bitten by yourself! On the other hand, you will quickly understand that finding your bearings in space and foraging in these conditions requires resolving a certain number of mental operations.(…)

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Bees: a CNRS researcher in Toulouse studies the Intelligence Quotient of these insects


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