What is the most intelligent insect?

10 September 2019





What is the most intelligent insect?


University of York animal behaviourist Eleanor Drinkwater got stuck in to this question from Mariana...

Eleanor - I have been asked this before and this is always a really hard question because I am incredibly biased, and I believe that all insects are incredibly intelligent in all sorts of different ways, and that we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what insects can do. So we probably, it could be the case that we haven't even discovered the cleverest insect. But if I was to choose one based on research about an individual who is pretty clever, it might have to be the bees I'm afraid, and there's some really cool research that has shown that bees can tell apart, the difference between different painting styles. So if you show them a Monet and a Picasso, you can get them to learn the differences and then be able to generalise to other paintings

Chris - And which do they prefer out of interest?

Eleanor - I don’t know! Maybe there'll be a follow up paper. I hope there would. But also they can tell the difference between people's faces and they can remember a face for two days which is incredible.

Chris - There was also a study that the researchers at Queen Mary University of London published a couple of years ago, where they showed a bee another bee rolling a ball into a goal, and the bee that was watching then learned how to get the bee ball into the into the bee goal and get a treat. So social learning.

Eleanor - And more than that, they did a follow on from that, which was even more cool; so they trained it on on one particular ball, and they had other balls in the area which they'd glued down while they were learning, but then in the second round they unglued the balls and the bee would learn the concepts, and then would apply it to closer balls, so then they would perform the same action, but on a set. So they weren't just learning “oh this ball goes in the hole”, they could like generalise, which is incredible if you think about it.

Chris - Anyone else got a favourite insect, in the studio.

Eleanor - Everyone should.

Bobby - I have the cicada.

Chris - Oh I know why you're gonna go with that, because they come out on prime number years don't they? Every 13 or 17 years cicadas emerge don't they?

Bobby - They do.

Chris - To minimise the chances of their mating year coinciding with predators.

Eleanor - It’s so cool!

Bobby - Exactly. I always tell my students that on a Friday afternoon these cicadas are probably smarter than my students on Friday at two o'clock.

Chris - Maybe even smarter than the lecturer, you never know. There’s a provocative thought. Dan, a favourite insect?

Dan - I don’t know, I suppose possibly the butterfly. Just purely because I just love the whole process from chrysalis to butterfly, but actually just the sheer variety of butterflies. I think it's just mind boggling.

Chris - They also do amazing feats of navigation the butterflies, the monarch butterflies for example, all the way from Canada down to New Mexico, and that kind of environs. It’s thousands of miles these tiny insects make, and they actually navigate, and they use their body clock and the position of the sun to navigate. And you think, this tiny insect, and you know I can't even find my way around London and these things find their way. They’re just an insect. I do find this quite amazing.

Eleanor - Yeah. You shouldn’t say just an insect, you mean an insect!


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