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Bumblebeeball: research indicates fluffy pollinators may play ball just for kicks

It is not necessary all work and no play for the humble bumblebee. Bumblebees do play. And they possibly do it just for the fun of it, indicates research carried out at the Queen Mary University of London.

The insects repeatedly chose to roll wooden balls in an experiment despite having no clear reward for doing so. In fact, they have done so while, at least temporarily, ignoring a treat left for them nearby. The discovery may be the first-ever documented evidence of insects playing.

Bumblebees play, possibly just for the fun of it

In a study by @QMUL, the bees chose to roll wooden balls despite having no reward for doing so. The discovery may be the first documented evidence of insects playing ����

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— New Scientist (@newscientist) November 3, 2022

The discovery was made by Samadi Galpayage, who leads a team of researchers at the Queen Mary University of London. Ms Galpayage, who is a PhD student in biology, specialising in bee behaviour, and her colleagues were inspired to investigate if bees play after finding that the insects could be trained to roll balls into tiny soccer goals for a food reward in 2017.

In their new study, the team placed 45 buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris audax) of different sexes and ages in an arena with a single entrance. There was a clear aisle from the entrance to pollen and sugar water in the back of the chamber, but the insects had to pass between two adjacent rooms with 18 colourful wooden balls to get there. One room had free-moving balls, while the other had balls that were glued down.

Over 18 three-hour sessions, the bees opted to enter the zone with free-moving balls 50 percent more often than the zone with stationary balls, which were much less fun to play with, being glued to the surface and all.

Each bumblebee rolled balls between one and 117 times throughout the study despite having no obvious incentive to do so. Instead, ball-rolling appeared to be a spontaneous and voluntary action without any immediate or long-term benefits for the bumblebees.

“With humans, we can ask, ‘Are you having fun?’,” said the researcher and likely future head of the International Bumblebeeball Federation. “Whereas with animals, it’s always difficult to assess that.”

“When you look at the videos of the bees on the balls, if you saw that in a dog, or a monkey, or even a bird, we’d have no problem calling it play,” Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, commented on the results of Ms Galpayage’s study.

To put it in layman’s terms, everything indicates that bumblebees rolled the balls around just to have a good time, or in other words, for the kicks of it.

Not all bees had the same knack for playing with the balls. Males were more likely to do it than same-age females. Enthusiasm for ball-play also appeared to sag with age.

As Ms Galpayage noted, this is not unlike kittens and puppies pouncing and wrestling to build hunting skills. She suggests that the mental and physical exercise of play may be especially beneficial during bumblebees’ youth.

Or perhaps after a hard day’s work at the pollen mill, older bumblebees just want to sit on the couch, crack open a cold one, and watch the bumblebeeball on the TV.

The research was carried out on worker bumblebees. A study is yet to be conducted on professional bumblebeeball players, and how the presence of pollen, sugary water, or other controlled substances would affect their behaviour. There is no data that would clarify whether they can be bribed into fixing game scores or would bumblebee ball officials be willing to organise a world championship in a Middle Eastern emirate if their palms were greased.

However, both are unlikely, as bumblebeeball is not a competitive sport, and bumblebees do not have palms.

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