Bees Can Solve Complex Color Puzzles, Study Finds

Bethany Halford
for National Geographic News
November 1, 2005

As they buzz from blossom to blossom, it might seem that bumblebees need to see only flowers, honey, and hive. But a new study suggests that bumblebees have a surprisingly sophisticated visual system.

Through a series of clever experiments, University College London researchers R. Beau Lotto and Martina Wicklein discovered that bees can solve complex color puzzles.

The scientists say the finding may provide new understanding of human vision and guide the development of similar systems for robots. The study appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' Online Early Edition.

In bees, as with people, vision has as much to do with the brain as it does with the eye. As Lotto explains, the eye sees by detecting light that falls upon its retina. But, the neuroscientist adds, light that's reflected onto the eye from an object, such as a flower, is constantly changing.

To perceive the flower or anything else, the brain must decipher that light. "If you can understand how something relatively simple like the bee solves these problems, then we can apply that to robotics," Lotto said.

Developing a visual system that deciphers information, he added, "is the most significant obstacle facing robotics."

Color Puzzle

Scientists already knew that bumblebees could distinguish different flowers based on color alone. And they knew that bees could do this under different types of global lighting—a sunny morning or an overcast afternoon, for example.

Researchers assumed that the bees made color distinctions by adapting to the scene's average color.

What scientist didn't know was whether bumblebees could distinguish specifically colored flowers where lighting conditions were more complicated—a forest floor dappled with sunlight, for example.

To better grasp how bees operate in such complex lighting, Lotto and Wicklein set up a bumblebee puzzle.

The duo built an array of 64 Plexiglas "flowers." The array was then divided into 4 panels of 16 flowers. In each panel, light filters gave four flowers different colors: ultraviolet yellow, blue, yellow, and green.

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