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What does the bee see?

How can miniature brains process complex visual information? In the case of the honey bee, there is much more than meets the eye. Bees are often used when investigating such questions because they are extremely easy to train, and can be taught to complete difficult foraging tasks. Researchers have trained bees to navigate through mazes, and have even used virtual reality technology to understand how they respond to specific visual cues.

Recently, we have been investigating how bees process brightness information in their visual system. Bees use their colour vision to search for deliciously colourful flowers in the environment. However, we don’t know if they process brightness signals as a dimension of their colour vision. Does the brightness of a flower matter to a hungry bee? To answer this question, we trained free-flying honey bees to detect a range of bright cards, and to use this information in order to collect food from a Y-shaped maze (gif below). Bees were trained with a framework called appetitive-aversive differential conditioning. This involved motivating bees to complete the task with both a reward and punishment presented simultaneously.

After training the bees to detect the bright cards, we found that they did not seem to use brightness information in their colour vision. This means that bees ignore brightness when they are looking at colourful objects. Learning about how bees see the world around them allows us to build better robots that also have to solve complicated visual problems with miniature hardware. This study is being conducted in collaboration with the Bio Inspired Digital Sensing-Lab at RMIT University.

Leslie Ng

Leslie is a current Masters student investigating honey bee perception of brightness as a component of colour.