Image credit: Robert W. Matthews, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org
In 2005, Adrian Dyer trained bees to associate sugary rewards with pictures of human faces. The results seemed to indicate that bees could actually identify a human face. New research, however, indicates that the situation is more complex—and more fascinating—than this early study suggested.Martin Giurfa from the Université de Toulouse, France, was drawn to the 2005 study because he believed that, while the bees were able to recognize a face, they were not interpreting it as such. Giurfa explains:
Because the insects were rewarded with a drop of sugar when they chose human photographs, what they really saw were strange flowers. The important question was what strategy do they use to discriminate between faces.
To test her question, Giurfa teamed up with Dyer and Aurore Avargues-Weber, another scientist studying bees. The group of researchers designed a new set of tests, published in Journal of Experimental Biology to gain a more complete understanding of the bee's recognition and identification capabilities.
First, they placed cards with simple face-like images—made of dots for eyes and sticks for a nose and mouth—next to cards with non-face-like patterns. When the bees went towards the face-like images, they were rewarded with a sugar solution. After several trials, the solution was removed. Even without the reward, the bees gravitated towards the face-like images.
Next, the team tested the bees' ability to interpret the proportions of the pattern. One card with the dots and sticks spread apart was placed next to a card that had a more standard face proportion. After similar trials with the sugar solution, the reward was removed. Astonishingly, the bees continued to return to the image they had previously been rewarded for.
Finally, researchers placed the stick and dot pattern over the actual image of a face. Bees were able to identify the pattern, even when distracted by the more complex background. When the pattern was rearranged—for example, the mouth was placed above the eyes—however, the bees treated them as unknown patterns.
Researchers were quick to say, however, that these findings do not imply bees are capable of identifying individual faces. Indeed, while a bee, once trained, may never forget a face, they probably won't be able to identify your face.