Learning by observation emerges from simple associations in an insect model

Curr Biol. 2013 Apr 22;23(8):727-30. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.03.035. Epub 2013 Apr 4.


Recent debate has questioned whether animal social learning truly deserves the label "social". Solitary animals can sometimes learn from conspecifics, and social learning abilities often correlate with individual learning abilities, so there may be little reason to view the underlying learning processes as adaptively specialized. Here, we demonstrate how learning by observation, an ability common to primates, birds, rodents, and insects, may arise through a simple Pavlovian ability to integrate two learned associations. Bumblebees are known to learn how to recognize rewarding flower colors by watching conspecifics from behind a screen, and we found that previous associations between conspecifics and reward are critical to this process. Bees that have previously been rewarded for joining conspecifics copy color preferences, but bees that lack such experience do not, and those that associate conspecifics with bitter substances actively avoid those flower colors where others have been seen. Our findings place a seemingly complex social learning phenomenon within a simple associative framework that is common to social and solitary species alike.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Association Learning
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Color
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Flowers / physiology
  • Reward
  • Social Behavior