Can sociality facilitate learning of complex tasks? Lessons from bees and flowers

Tamar Keasar, Odile Pourtallier, Eric Wajnberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The emergence of animal societies is a major evolutionary transition, but its implications for learning-dependent innovations are insufficiently understood. Bees, with lifestyles ranging from solitary to eusocial, are ideal models for exploring social evolution. Here, we ask how and why bees may acquire a new 'technology', foraging on morphologically complex flowers, and whether eusociality facilitates this technological shift. We consider 'complex' flowers that produce high food rewards but are difficult to access, versus 'simple' flowers offering easily accessible yet lower rewards. Complex flowers are less profitable than simple flowers to naive bees but become more rewarding after a learning period. We model how social bees optimally choose between simple and complex flowers over time, to maximize their colony's food balance. The model predicts no effect of colony size on the bees' flower choices. More foraging on complex flowers is predicted as colony longevity, its proportion of foragers, individual longevity and learning ability increase. Of these traits, only long-lived colonies and abundant foragers characterize eusocial bees. Thus, we predict that eusociality supports, but is not mandatory for, learning to exploit complex flowers. A re-analysis of a large published dataset of bee-flower interactions supports these conclusions. We discuss parallels between the evolution of insect sociality and other major transitions that provide scaffolds for learning innovations. This article is part of the theme issue 'Human socio-cultural evolution in light of evolutionary transitions'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20210402
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1872
StatePublished - 13 Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s).


  • eusociality
  • evolutionary transition
  • flower morphology
  • learning
  • pollination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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