Bee or no bee: HC professor links bees to psychology studies | New
Growing up in Texas and Hawaii, Nichole Muszynski was never enthusiastic about bees. So it’s as much of a surprise to the 32-year-old psychology professor as it is to anyone who knows her that she now finds them so becoming.
Muszynski, who moved to Hastings from Hawaii in June 2020, incorporates the study of bees into her course outlines as an assistant professor of psychology and sociology at Hastings College.
To accommodate Plan Bee, four campus departments pledged funding to move two beehives on campus near the Morrison Reeves Science Building. The interdisciplinary project, which she hopes will be ready in time for fall semester studies, will provide hands-on access to bees for experiments and psychology-related studies across multiple departments.
“There are a lot of things to do with bees,” she says. “So far we’ve only really discussed, ‘What would you do if you could do it?’ When we have bees on campus, I can have my students design bee experiments and go out and do them.”
Having landed on the study of bees while pursuing a psychology degree in Hawaii, Muszynski has had a bee in his beanie for them ever since, devoting his dissertation to the study of their cognitive behavior while pursuing his doctorate in psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His lesson plans at HC will incorporate the study of bees, with the results to be documented in a series of publishable papers.
Titled “Category Difference Facilitates Learning Oddities in the Honeybee (Apis mellifera),” his award-winning thesis is a collaborative effort written with PA Couvillion when the two were working together at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center in Hawaii. Published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, the paper recently received the Frank A. Beach Comparative Psychology Award as Best Paper of the Year in the Division of Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology.
“It was a surprise, to be honest,” Muszynski said. “I’m really interested in studying non-human animals and humans. The aim is to see if there are similarities or differences between the different species and their cognitive abilities: learning, memory, attention and problem solving.
“Some people look to see if there are differences in general behavior, group structures of organisms. I’m more interested in learning and memory.
What mystified Muszynski most about his studies of bees was how intelligent they seem. Compared to other non-human species, their ability to differentiate between shapes – given the relative size of their brains – is truly baffling. Given an oddity problem calling for the identification of a strange shape from a grouping, the bees showed a surprising ability to find the outlier in about an hour, considerably faster than the timed times of young children. , sea lions and chimpanzees.
Bees have 1 million neurons (brain cells). Comparatively, the human brain has 86 billion neurons, while cats or dogs have billions. And yet, the study results suggest that bees possess an incredible capacity for learning similar to that of much larger animals.
“We gave the bees a quirk problem, arranging four objects,” she said. “The fact that a bee can do a problem that a human, a chimpanzee and a cat can do suggests that something is going on that has been evolutionarily conserved through time for it to happen.
“What is surprising is how quickly they do it. It can take months and months for a cat or sea lion to learn this, and a bee can learn this problem in about an hour. What’s going on?”
Given the immeasurable complexity of the human brain, researchers have long used non-human subjects to study the behavioral habits of Homo sapiens. The fact that bees share certain human traits makes them ideal for psychology experiments, Muszynski said.
“The goal of my research was to focus more on the complex type of learning that bees might show,” she said. “People are surprised that a lot of psychology experiments are done on animals and also on vertebrae for human brain research. Much of what we know about the brain comes from invertebrates.
“To study the brain, you have to look at simpler organisms. They (non-human brains) have fewer neurons and we can sometimes see how brain cells work in simpler organisms.
Muszynski is excited about the endless possibilities the two hives will bring to campus for exploring bee-related behaviors. Potential topics for exploration may include environmental impact research focusing on how they are able to survive the brutally cold Nebraska winters, how mites and beetles can infiltrate and destroy colonies, and what types of flowers bees prefer to pollinate.
“I don’t know if anyone has ever done an experiment to test bees’ preferences for flowers,” she said. “It’s a simple question with no quick scientific answer, which is pretty neat.”