My other two blogs this week are a little heavy, so I thought I would lighten the publication with “Bumblebees have a ball”. Yes, there is now evidence that bumblebees, as well as many other animal species “play” and seemingly have “fun”. We are all familiar with dogs and cats playing, and even lions, foxes and bears appear to have “fun”, but bumblebees?

     I looked up the definition of “Play” and “Fun”, as I’m sure the scientists who reported that bumblebees engage in “play” did before me.

     “Play”, according to various dictionaries I consulted is generically defined as, “An activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than for a serious or practical purpose”.

     “Fun”, according to the same group of dictionaries, is generically defined as, “enjoyment, amusement, or light-hearted pleasure”.

     I have to ask, “How on earth did scientists find out, assuming their assumptions were valid, that bumblebees play and have fun?”

     Hiruni Samadi Galpayage Dona and Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University in London have published an article in the journal Animal Behaviour that describes bumblebees playing a type of football (the worldwide game, not the American one). I have to ask, “Football?” You have to be kidding!

     The two scientists admit that the bumblebee version of football is not a team game, and the balls they use are about the same size as the bees themselves. However, they report that to a human observer, the bees give every impression that they are enjoying the bumblebee equivalent of a kickabout.

     Dr Chittka reported that he asked himself whether bumblebees like to play after he saw them apparently acting that way during a previous study in which he trained them to roll wooden balls around in order to receive food. He noticed that they would often roll the balls for no apparent reason. They just seemed to enjoy it. He thought this would be a perfect Ph.D project for one of his graduate students. Ms. Galpayage Dona stepped up to the plate.

     She created an arena, baited with pollen and sugar solution, to lure the bees in from the bumblebee nest in Dr. Chittka’s lab. Her “playpen” contained 18 wooden balls coated with clear plastic so they could be cleaned every day of any scent picked up. In one part of the arena, nine of the balls were fixed to the floor. In another part, the balls could be rolled around.

     Ms. Galpayage Dona then tagged 45 bees between 1 and 23 days old so they could be followed as individuals. She opened the door to the arena for three hours a day for eighteen days and videotaped what happened.

     The videos suggested the bees did enjoy the experience. They would start by touching a ball with their forelegs, then grab it with all six legs and rotate it towards themselves while moving across the floor backwards. Then they would then dismount. All of the tagged bees rolled a ball at least once during the experiment. Most did so many times. One particular enthusiast managed 117 rolls. Overall, the cameras recorded 910 incidents of ball-rolling by tagged insects.

     Re-enforcing that idea that the bees just wanted to play, they quickly learned to ignore the area where the balls were glued down. Also, as with birds and mammals, young bees played more often that old ones.

     All they need now, it seems, is some goalposts in the arena, and a refer(b)ee. A bumblebee “league” could well be in the future!

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