Bees and the Morse code

This project is available from the academic year 2025/26 onwards.

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Elisabetta Versace

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Elisabetta Versace's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Yannick Wurm

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Yannick Wurm's Profile Picture

Project Description:

Animals don’t need large brains to cope with their complex environment: with their tiny brains, insects exhibit sophisticated behaviours that increase their fitness. Remarkable differences between species remain to be understood. Think about bees. Both honeybees and bumblebees forage for their colonies but only honeybees communicate the location of food to their mates through a specific behaviour called waggle dance. Is this a specific adaptation that has no implications besides communication about food, or are honeybees better equipped for learning patterns in general? To answer this question, we will test whether honeybees and bumblebees have different abilities to learn rhythmic patterns presented as flashing lights, as in the Morse code. Foragers will be trained to gain a sucrose reward by choosing between lights that flash according to patterns that follow different rules. The ability to learn different rules has been studied in different mammals and birds but whether insects exhibit rule learning abilities is an open question. Bees are an ideal candidate to address this issue because we know they can learn abstract concepts such as “same” and “different”, and because the comparison between bumblebees and honeybees can tell us something about the existence of general or specialised learning abilities as a result of adaptive processes.

Policy Impact of Research:

Bees are fundamental pollinators for agriculture and in wild ecosystems, with a pivotal role in biodiversity. Understanding bees’ behavioural ecology and cognitive abilities is crucial especially now that bees are under threat due to different climatic and anthropogenic factors. 

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