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World Cup: How to train a bee to play football

About the author

David Robson is BBC Future's feature writer. Follow him on Twitter: @d_a_robson

The World Cup inspired one scientist to see if you could train bees to play football. See what happened in the video above, and what it tells us about bees' amazing intellect.

The buzz of excitement is audible. But when the players arrive, the game soon descends into chaos. They barely seem able to tell one foot from the other; one player falls head over heels while another hides on the side-lines. Finally, the striker lines himself up... shoots... and scores. And the game ends.

No, this bumbling behaviour isn’t from the shellshocked Brazilian side. The players are bees trained by Felicity Muth, who researches animal behaviour at the University of Nevada in Reno. The bees’ performance – as clumsy as it may be – is just the latest example of their amazing intellects. For a sweet reward of sugar water, bumblebees and honeybees have mastered a range of skills, including an ability to count, find a quick route out of a maze, and even tell the difference between cubist and impressionist paintings. Indeed, one group of honeybees seemed to master multiple abstract concepts, such as colours and arrangement of objects, quicker than our primate relatives. This is despite them having a brain the size of a grass seed. Learning to dribble a ball across a pitch may have been simple in comparison.

The idea originated while Muth was watching the World Cup in her lab. To coax her bees into playing, Muth first covered a small pompom with pollen. “It's their only source of protein and they need it to feed their larvae,” she says. “They have such a strong drive to collect it.” Muth then filmed their antics as they chased the ball around the pitch, and into the goal.

As impressive as they are, these bumblebees can’t claim to be the first insects to play the beautiful game; that may go to a team ants lured into playing soccer last year. But if their other skills are anything to go by, they may be the smartest. And who knows? Maybe one day we will see the two species battle it out on pitch. Let the Insect World Cup commence. Go Bees!

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