Solving puzzles is the bee’s knees!


[Image courtesy of Gift of Curiosity.]

As a puzzler, I am on a quest to highlight and recognize the skills and accomplishments of fellow puzzlers. All too often, other outlets restrict this activity to humans and humans alone.

But PuzzleNation Blog has a fine long-standing tradition of celebrating the puzzly accomplishments of non-human puzzlers. In the past, we’ve discussed the puzzle skills evidenced by cats, dogs, crows, cockatoos, and octopuses.

Today, we proudly add another species to that litany of puzzle-cracking creatures: bees.


[Image courtesy of Rachel Carson Landmark Alliance.]

An article in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology — titled, in true scientific fashion, “Associative Mechanisms Allow for Social Learning and Cultural Transmission of String Pulling in an Insect” — states that bees can not only learn non-natural skills, but teach them to other bees.

This behavior, previously only observed in vertebrates, is a huge step forward for our studies of animal cognition.

Allow me to explain.

A group of bees were given a non-natural task to complete — pulling a string attached to a blue disc hidden under Plexiglas — in order to earn a drop of sugar water.

In the first test, zero out of 50 bees figured out how to remove the disc. When half of those bees were given a second chance, two of them did figure out how to pull the string and retrieve the disc.


[Image courtesy of Reuters.]

The study goes on to describe how the scientists taught the bees to complete the task, and then how these bees (known as innovators) could go on to teach other bees how to do so.

From an article on Natural Science News:

The skill spread quickly and half of the untrained bees gained the ability by learning from the original innovator bee. Even after the original innovator bee died, the skill continued to be passed down to future generations. This was the first recorded case of cultural transmission of a non-natural skill in social insects.

Now, this is all very exciting, but in the midst of all this news coverage and scientific back-patting, I feel like someone’s accomplishments have been overshadowed.

TWO of those bees figured this out on their own. No scientist teachers, no innovator bees, just their own puzzly chops.

Sure, it took two tries, but heck, it takes me more than two tries to solve plenty of puzzles!

And so, on behalf of the vertebrate puzzle-solving community, I’d like to welcome those two bees to our ranks. Other bees may follow, but you were the first. Nicely done.

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These brain teasers are the cat’s meow.

[Image courtesy of]

It’s difficult to write about the potential health benefits of puzzles. Believe me, I’ve tried.

But many scientific articles, research studies, and other professional analyses disagree on the short-term or long-term benefits that puzzles have on the brain. There’s a wealth of material out there on brain health and the impact of puzzles, but much of it is inconclusive.

I’ve always tried to be careful to discuss any scientific articles on brain health for that reason, especially after Lumosity’s two-million-dollar payout earlier this year for falsely advertising that their puzzle games could “reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions,” as well as “stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”

That’s less of an issue, thankfully, when writing about other puzzle-solving creatures, though. In the past, we’ve seen crafty cockatoos, clever crows, outwitting octopuses, and deductive dogs. Apparently, we can also add cats to the list of fellow puzzlers!

[A mobile feeder toy. Image courtesy of Purina One.]

A recent article in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery reports that their findings indicate that a healthy dose of puzzle-solving at mealtime is beneficial to a kitty’s welfare.

According to the folks at Gizmodo, by utilizing food puzzles that require cats to roll a toy to release some food or manipulate a game board to reveal food, “these puzzles take advantage of the feline hunting instinct, fulfilling their ingrained desires. By ‘foraging’ for food in this way, cats are more physically active, they experience reduced levels of stress, and they become less demanding of their owners.”

Apparently, it’s all about engaging the cats, giving them something to work against in order to earn the food. The case studies cited by the report include behavioral issues and obesity that were overcome thanks to the use of food puzzles.

[A stationary puzzle feeder. Image courtesy of]

I already knew that cats were skilled at treasure and scavenger hunts — based on the absolutely ludicrous places I would find the toys my sister’s cats left behind, often weeks after their visits — but I had no idea they belonged among the elite puzzle-solving animals we’ve previously chronicled here.

Makes sense, though. I solve puzzles for snacks sometimes. *shrugs* It’s a living.

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Puppy Puzzling!

Most of the time when I write about puzzles, I write about humans solving them, because we are, by a long shot, the biggest consumers of puzzles and games in the world.

But, from time to time, I learn about other species that also have a knack for solving puzzles, and I welcome them to the puzzle-solving community. In the past, we’ve talked about crows, cockatoos, and octopuses solving various mechanical puzzles.

And then a friend of the blog brought another puzzle-solving species to my attention: dogs!

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. After all, one of my dogs has a knack for getting his tennis ball stuck in the strangest corners and beneath furniture that shouldn’t allow a tennis ball at all!

So I did a little research, and it turns out, there’s an entire puzzle-solving industry devoted entirely to dogs. They’re almost exclusively mechanical puzzles with food rewards, just like the puzzles we’ve seen birds and octopuses solve, but they involve the same sort of step-by-step chain puzzle-solving. And some of it gets pretty complicated!

There are one-step devices, like the Trixie Dog Activity Poker Box, which involves four boxes that open in different ways.

There are two-step devices, like the Jigsaw Glider, which requires the dog to open pieces on either side and then shift the center piece back and forth in order to nab every treat inside.

In a similar vein, there’s the Doggy Brain Train 2-in-1, a food-centric version of a sliding tile puzzle, where the dog must deduce that there’s food beneath each disk, and slide the disks aside to acquire the treats beneath.

And the puzzles only grow more complex from there. In the Dog Activity Gambling Tower, the dog has to pull away three floor pieces in order to make the treats drop, like a snacky version of Ker-Plunk.

Various companies produce each of these products. But the queen of puppy puzzles is clearly Nina Ottosson, who has a fleet of food-puzzle products to put your puppy to the test.

Check out this one, the MixMax Puzzle B:

It’s the second difficulty level in a series of toys, where the dog has to rotate the center piece, push out one of the cones (with treats inside), rotate the piece again, and finally free the cone and the treats. That is a LOT of work for a few treats.

She also has ones where the dog has to remove one element to unlock a little drawer containing a treat. In this video, a dog named Amos solves the Dog Casino, a Nina Ottosson food-puzzle toy that uses this puzzle style:

We can officially add dogs to the elite puzzle-solving ranks of crows, cockatoos, octopuses, and humans, though I must admit, it’s a little embarrassing to realize that those other four species are all smart enough to do their own puzzle-solving for treats. No one ever gives me a treat for solving a puzzle.

Hmmm. Maybe they’re even smarter than we thought.

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Birdbrain, indeed!

[Here, a crow reaches food by adding stones to containers
in order to raise the water level. Pretty crafty.]

Without a doubt, one of my favorite aspects of human society is our love of puzzles. We have this marvelous desire to challenge each other with all sorts of mechanical puzzles, logic games, pen-and-paper puzzles, apps, and riddles, and arguably the only thing better than creating such diabolical obstacles is overcoming them.

But humans aren’t the only puzzle solvers on the planet. In previous blog posts, we’ve explored the puzzly skills of octopuses and cockatoos, two immensely clever species that’ve each tackled their fair share of mechanical puzzles.

Sure, they’re not solving Sudoku grids or unraveling centuries-old mysteries like Nicolas Cage in National Treasure, but they are putting memory, dexterity, and problem solving to the test with remarkable success.

And today, we welcome a third non-human species to the pantheon of Earthly puzzle solvers: crows.

Check out this video, a segment from a BBC documentary, featuring a crow solving a multi-stage mechanical puzzle in order to feed itself:

[Not quite a feast for crows, is it?]

While this video is amazing, I can’t say I’m surprised. Crows are immensely clever creatures. I remember reading a news story from Japan a few years ago about crows outwitting numerous anti-crow efforts by the Japanese to control the sometimes-dangerous birds. (In Tokyo, crows have caused power outages, downed Internet lines, and even injured citizens.)

When anti-crow traps and sweeps began thinning their numbers, the crows responded by building multiple fake nests to mislead and flummox employees tasked with controlling the bird problem.

And with puzzly skills like those shown in the video on their side, those crows could prove to be an even bigger challenge than they expect.

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Fellow puzzlers, I must apologize. Over the last few months, I’ve attempted to cover as wide a swathe of the puzzling community as possible in my blog posts, but I failed.

Make no mistake, I’ve done a pretty decent job of it, exploring everything from puzzle tattoos and Halloween costumes to brainteasers both new and old, from puzzle references in movies and TV to writing clues and book reviews.

But I’ve managed to neglect an entire sector of the puzzle-loving community: non-human puzzlers.

Oh yes, I’ve been unintentionally speciesist, and that stops today. Let’s take a look at Earth’s other great puzzle-solving creature: the octopus.

Think I’m kidding? Hardly.

Scientists have repeatedly found that octopuses can solve mazes, remember solutions, and apply past experience to new puzzles. They are infinitely curious and adaptable puzzle solvers in their own right.

In fact, some researchers have taken to offering what are known as “prey puzzles” to octopuses in captivity in order to study how they learn, as well as their dexterity, both mental and physical.

From locked boxes to screw-top jars and bottles, prey puzzles have all been solved with relative ease by octopuses. (In fact, Lucy the Puzzle-Solving Octopus — which should really be a children’s book or a kids’ TV series — has been the subject of several articles.)

True, they’re not exactly solving Rubik’s Cubes or decoding cryptograms, but they do impressive mechanical puzzle-solving for a species lacking thumbs, don’t you think?

So, it is with deep regret that I apologize to the octopus community for ignoring your puzzle-solving skills for so long. It shan’t happen again, I assure you.

And now, as a final act of contrition, I give you the following video, featuring a poorly-filmed octopus solving a fairly simple prey puzzle in under two minutes. Enjoy!