February 26, 2019
For insects, honey bees are notoriously intelligent, boasting exceptional navigation skills, communication skills, and the unique ability among insects to comprehend abstract concepts. However, based on recent reports, they may have to add art connoisseur to their repertoire. As part of the Great Australian Bee Challenge from ABC Catalyst, honey bees have been shown to be capable of learning the differences between Australian and European indigenous art—all in a single afternoon. While honey bees may not be as cultured as your typical art critic, this experiment at least shows how fast these pollinators can come to process complex information.
As to how this experiment worked, a number of honey bees were exposed to four paintings by French impressionist Claude Monet as well as four paintings from indigenous artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili of Australia. Each painting had a tiny blue dot at the center, and to demonstrate meaningful differences between Monet and Marawili to the bees, they found sugar water drops for every instance of landing on the Marawili blue dot. For every Monet visit, however, they found drops of dilute quinine, which has a bitter taste.
Once they experienced each painting, the bees were tested by being shown paintings they hadn’t seen from both Monet and Marawili—and they all directed their attention to Marawili’s paintings. These results actually may not have been that huge of a surprise, as the experiment itself was based on a study conducted by a team of University of Queensland researchers led by Dr. Judith Reinhard. In this study, Reinhard trained bees to distinguish between Picasso and Monet paintings.
More than anything, this work shows that bees have an incredible ability to learn and classify visual information. Different artists often prefer different kinds of structure and composition, different pallets, and different tones to create their own artistic styles. Even the most amateur appreciators of art can recognize how artists are different, even if they can’t describe exactly why. When the bees received their training, every Marawili produced a sweet experience whereas the Monet paintings were bitter ones. This properly motivated the insects into learning whatever differences there were between the Monet and Marawili paintings.
A bee’s color vision is remarkably different from a human’s in that they perceive ultraviolet light wavelengths, but they can’t perceive red. Bees can detect edges and structure in paintings via zipping back and forth quickly and can pick up changes in an image’s brightness. In this experiment, the bees could see enough differences in the Monet and Marawili paintings to differentiate them. They didn’t memorize the paintings—they learned whatever information they needed to distinguish a Marawili from a Monet in order to get the most sugar and smallest amount of bitterness as possible.
This is a skillset that likely evolved from the necessity of determining the flowers that would offer the best nectar and pollen the bees needed for feeding the hive. This may be an intelligence that’s different from our own, but it’s one that’s evolved for the job of doing what bees have to do. It’s certainly easy to admire these clever, quick-footed (or winged) creatures.
Photo Courtesy of Ed Bierman via Creative Commons License