Bees can learn the difference between European and Australian native art styles in just one afternoon

We’ve known for some time that bees are smart cookies. They have excellent navigation skills, they communicate symbolically through dance, and they are the only insects that have learned to learn abstract concepts.

Honey bees might also add the title of connoisseur of art to their trick box. In Part 1 of ABC Catalyst’s The Great Australian Bee Challenge, we see bees learning to tell the difference between European and Australian native art in a single afternoon.

Does this mean that honey bees are more cultured than us?

Maybe not, but experience certainly shows how quickly bees can learn to process very complex information.

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How the experiment worked

Lightning in the Rock by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili won the Bark Painting Award at the 2015 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
Image of AAP/PR document

The bees saw four different paintings by French impressionist artist Claude Monet and four paintings by Australian indigenous artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili.

In the center of each painting was placed a small blue dot. To tell the difference between bee-meaningful artists, each time they landed on the blue dot of a Marawili painting, they found a tiny drop of sugar water. However, each time they visited the blue dot on a Monet painting, they found a drop of diluted quinine. Quinine is not harmful, but it tastes bitter.

After experiencing each of Monet’s and Marawili’s paintings, the bees were put to a test. They were shown paintings by the two artists that they had never seen before. Could they tell the difference between a Marawili and a Monet?

All trained bees clearly directed their attention to the Marawili paintings.

This experiment was a recreation of a study first conducted by Dr. Judith Reinhard’s team at the University of Queensland. In the original study, Reinhard was able to train bees to tell the difference between Monet’s and Picasso’s paintings.

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Bees learn quickly

This kind of work doesn’t show that bees have a sense of artistic style, but it does show how good they are at learning and classifying visual information.

Different artists – be they Marawili, Monet or Picasso – tend to prefer different forms of composition and structure, different tones and different palettes in their art. We describe this as their distinctive style. These styles are recognizable to us, although most of us would struggle to describe exactly what differentiates a Marawili from a Monet.

When the honey bees were trained on the paintings, every Monet they visited was a bitter experience, while every Marawili was sweet. This motivated the bees to learn the differences that best distinguished the set of Marawili paintings from the set of Monets.

The color vision of bees is excellent, although different from ours. Bees can see ultraviolet wavelengths of light, but not red. Bees can pick up the structure and edges of paintings by moving quickly back and forth to detect sudden changes in the brightness of an image.

In our experiment, the bees were able to detect enough differences between the Marawili and Monet paintings to learn to tell them apart. Bees did not memorize paintings; instead, they learned what information best distinguished a Monet from a Marawili. They could then maximize their sugar collection, and avoid any bitter surprises.

Learning the visual differences between a set of Monet and Marawili paintings was enough for the bees to correctly choose between Monet and Marawili paintings they had never seen before.

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Similarities Between Art and Flowers

This experience taps into a highly evolved skill of honey bees. Bees did not evolve to differentiate performers, but their survival depends on their ability to know which flowers are most likely to offer the best pollen and nectar they need to feed their hive.

Because of this, bees have developed the ability to process complex and subtle visual information very quickly. These learning skills are exhibited when bees forage on flowers. Bees quickly learn to grasp the finer distinction between fresh flowers and older flowers, be it color, smell or texture, which can betray which flowers are most likely to contain a drop of nectar.

A bee lands on a daisy.

Bees break any stereotypes we might have that insects are stupid, instinctive animals. They have an intelligence very different from ours, but which has evolved to be adept at the task of a bee doing what a bee should do.

It’s hard not to admire such intelligent and discriminating creatures.

Part two of the ABC’s The Great Australian Bee Challenge airs February 5.

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