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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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Bogus Brain Health edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of brain health and puzzles.

The physicist Emerson Pugh once said that “if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

We’re still working hard to unravel the mysteries of how we learn, how we store information, and how puzzle-solving affects the brain in the short term and in the long term. There have been many MANY studies published touting all sorts of results, both positive and negative. And there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim everything from improved memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

As a puzzle guy, I wholeheartedly believe that puzzle-solving has its benefits, and I’m always on the lookout for any new data on the subject to share with you, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

As far back as 2013, I was digging through every brain health article I could find, trying to find something substantial about the role of puzzles in brain health. I was hoping for a solid yea or nay, but the scientific community inevitably served up a resounding “maybe?”

Heck, as recently as this past September, I mentioned the conflicting data out there regarding brain health and puzzle-based programs like those on the Lumosity website.

And a recent article on Gizmodo may have put the final nail in the coffin when it comes to all of these lofty brain-health promises.

Citing a paper from Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the article discusses a recent attempt to comb through the numerous previous studies and test them under more rigorous scientific conditions.

The end result? From the Gizmodo article:

“Based on our extensive review of the literature cited by brain-training companies in support of their claims, coupled with our review of related brain-training literatures that are not currently associated with a company or product, there does not yet appear to be sufficient evidence to justify the claim that brain training is an effective tool for enhancing real-world cognition,” conclude the authors in the study.

Not surprisingly, brain-training can improve performance on the particular task or puzzle that’s being trained for. But there was very little evidence to show that these brain-games extend beyond that. These programs simply don’t improve everyday cognitive performance.

While I doubt this will be the last we’ve heard of puzzles as the be-all end-all cure for brain health, it’s good to know that dedicated minds are hard at work exposing the snake oil amidst the real science.


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