Honeybees (Apis mellifera) have small brains but they know their art. Starting with the knowledge that bees can distinguish among different sorts of landscapes, types of flowers and human faces, scientists from the University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), the UQ School of Psychology and the Federal University of Sao Carlos trained honeybees to distinguish between Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet and Cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso.
That is, even though bees’ brains are about the size of a grass seed, they have a “highly developed capacity for processing complex visual information” that is more similar to that of vertebrates. Indeed their “visual learning and discrimination abilities … extend beyond learning simple colors, shapes or patterns,” as the scientists write in the Journal of Comparative Physiology.
Dr. Judith Reinhard and her colleagues wanted to find out if bees could discriminate among artistic styles, an ability that has been thought to be a “higher cognitive function” and one indeed unique to humans (though a previous study has shown that pigeons can distinguish between artistic styles).
Art Info describes how the bees’ aesthetic sensitivity was tested:
For each experiment, two groups of 25 individually marked honeybees were trained separately to discriminate between a pair (or pairs, depending on experiment) of Monet and Picasso paintings. One group of bees was trained to favour a Monet painting over a Picasso painting in exchange for a reward [of sugar], while the second group was trained to favour a Picasso painting over a Monet painting in exchange for a reward.
The scientists placed sugar in a hole behind each painting; the bees were not able to tell which painting contained the food until they were actually inside it. That is, they had to choose the correct painting to get to the sugary reward.
When presented with paintings they had seen before, the bees even showed some “ability to generalize,” to apply what they had learned to a novel situation.
As the scientists write, the experiments showed that bees do not only rely on color, luminescence and patterns to visually discriminate among objects, landscapes and such, but are attuned to different sorts of features that differentiate one artist’s work from another. (The Daily Mail has examples of both a Cubist Picasso painting and a Monet of water lilies to show the differences in styles.) Bees are, then, capable of “extracting and learning the characteristic visual information inherent in each painting style” and applying it to novel stimuli.
Dr. Reinhard’s study leads me to think I ought to borrow something from her experiments in teaching, or trying to teach, my students to develop their capacity to identify different artistic styles and distinguish among different styles of ancient pottery, painting and sculpture.
Bees have also been shown to be able to “solve complex mathematical problems which keep computers busy for days,” Art Info also observes, citing a 2009 study by Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, that showed that bees “learn to fly the shortest route between flowers discovered in random order, effectively solving the ‘travelling salesman problem.’” Dr. Reinhard’s and other scientists’ investigations into bees’ intelligence do lead one to think that saying someone has a “bee brain” could be quite the compliment.
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Photo by Lisa D Elliott