Bees play football in a bizarre study in 2017. They had to move a pea-sized ball to a goal by 'kicking' it, getting a drop of nectar if they scored
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The BEEautiful game: What bees that play FOOTBALL could teach us about memory recall

  • Bees have one million neurons in their brains compared to 85million in humans
  • Means scientists can tackle questions about memory in ‘less complex system’
  • Several studies have tested memory of bees using nectar and mini football game

How to make memories more robust is an area of huge scientific interest — with bees providing surprising insights.

‘Bees are useful models of how much intelligence you can squeeze into a small brain,’ says Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioural ecology from Queen Mary University of London.

He co-authored a seminal study, published last November in Nature Communications, which showed how the gut bacteria of bees can influence the strength of their memories.

‘Their brains are about the size of a pinhead and while we have 85 billion neurons [nerve cells] in ours, bees have less than a million, so using bees means we can tackle questions about memory in a less complex system,’ he says.

Bees memorise a lot on a daily basis, he adds. ‘They have a home whose location they have to memorise — they can fly up to 10 km [six miles] away and have to be able to reliably find their way back home because they can’t live on their own. They would die.

‘When we tested them in the lab, it turns out they can memorise human faces, points of interest and learn to count’ — counting landmarks to locate their hive — as well as learning and memorising skills. 

This included teaching the bees to play football. They had to move a pea-sized ball to a goal by ‘kicking’ it, getting a drop of nectar if they scored.

Bees play football in a bizarre study in 2017. They had to move a pea-sized ball to a goal by 'kicking' it, getting a drop of nectar if they scored

Bees play football in a bizarre study in 2017. They had to move a pea-sized ball to a goal by ‘kicking’ it, getting a drop of nectar if they scored

‘They could also learn how to do this by observing each other,’ says Professor Chittka.

After seeing initial studies suggesting gut bacteria may be implicated in memory, Professor Chittka decided to investigate this in bees. 

The team set up ten different-coloured flowers in the lab. Five contained a nectar ‘reward’ and five didn’t; the bees were able to fly between them.

The assumption was that the bees would recall the flowers with nectar. The insects were then tested up to three days later to see if they could remember which flower was which. The results were correlated with their gut bacteria.

Next, one group’s diet was supplemented with Lactobacillus apis, a bacteria also found in the human gut that they identified as being linked to better memory. A control group had none.

‘It was astonishing,’ says Professor Chittka. ‘With supplementation, there was a 20 to 25 per cent enhancement in their ability to recall the flowers with the nectar reward.

‘One theory is that the bacteria increased levels of glycerophospholipids — a form of fat ‘known in bees and humans to be important building blocks in neural membranes.

‘These were elevated in the bees’ blood, so might be useful in building neurons and connections between them.’

The next step is to try the work in rats and then humans.

‘The dream would be to provide supplements that would benefit human memory, especially in those with degenerative disease,’ he says.

It’s not the only study linking the microbiome and memory. 

A study by the University of Georgia in the journal Translational Psychiatry last year, found that having sugary drinks as an adolescent has a negative impact on memory in adulthood. It’s thought the sugar affects the make-up of the microbiome.

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