New Study Shows Bumblebees Play Ball Just Like Dogs

For generations, people have viewed insects as mindless, feelingless critters whose lives hold little value. How many people see a spider and squish it without giving that spider’s life a second thought?

The truth is, humans are still learning about insects and the intricacies of their life cycles and feelings. Researchers from the Queen Mary University of London wanted to take things a step further and see if insects, like bees, enjoy play.

Photo: YouTube/Samadi Galpayage

It’s no secret that humans love to play, especially human children. But we know that other animals enjoy play as well, such as dolphins and dogs. Researchers decided to test a group of bumblebees and see if they would play ball, and the results were surprising.

The new study titled “Do bumble bees play?” was published in the journal Animal Behavior and suggests bumblebees may enjoy playing, much like dogs, dolphins, and even humans!

Photo: YouTube/Samadi Galpayage

To conduct the study, scientists introduced bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) to different ball-rolling experiments and watched to see if how they interacted with the balls could be considered play.

Surprisingly, researchers found that the bees went out of their way to roll the balls and younger bees rolled more balls than the older bees.

Photo: YouTube/Samadi Galpayage

In a press release from the Queen Mary University of London, study author Samadi Galpayage said:

“It is certainly mind-blowing, at times amusing, to watch bumble bees show something like play. They approach and manipulate these ‘toys’ again and again. It goes to show, once more, that despite their little size and tiny brains, they are more than small robotic beings. They may actually experience some kind of positive emotional states, even if rudimentary, like other larger fluffy, or not so fluffy, animals do.”

In the study, researchers laid out the five criteria they use for considering something play. An animal must meet all five criteria or the activity is considered something other than play.

Photo: YouTube/Samadi Galpayage

Criteria 1: Does not contribute to an immediate adaptive benefit or survival strategy.
Criteria 2: The play is voluntary, spontaneous, and rewarding.
Criteria 3: Play behavior should be different from behaviors used in looking for a mate or finding food.
Criteria 4: Play is repeated but not stereotyped.
Criteria 5: Play behavior was initiated under stress-free conditions.

It seems that bees in the study chose to roll balls even where there was no specific reason to, suggesting the behavior was spontaneous and play-based.

The research could help advance animal welfare laws and extend some protections to insects. In the press release, Galpayage said, “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.”

Professor Lars Chittka added, “We are producing ever-increasing amounts of evidence backing up the need to do all we can to protect insects that are a million miles from the mindless, unfeeling creatures they are traditionally believed to be.”

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