Complex visual processing and learning in bees reveals individual differences and plasticity to quickly adapt

Friday seminar by Adrian Dyer

A: Lens colour picture of a flower (Gelsemium sempervirens) for human vision B: Photograph of the flower taken through an ultraviolet transmitting lens. C: False colour image taken through an optical device simulating bee shape and colour vision. D: A filtered image that removes facets. [Image from: Williams S, Dyer AG (2007) A photographic simulation of insect vision. Journal Ophthalmic Photography 29, 10-14.]  


Studying bee visual processing and decision making allows for significant insights into how these important pollinators find flower in complex changing conditions. Recent work suggests a level of sophistication in bee vision, depending upon individual experience, which was previously thought to require large mammalian brains. Bumblebees and honeybees see ultraviolet, blue and green ‘colours’, and process information with a brain containing less than 1 million neurons. The bee brain learns colour information differently depending upon the specific conditioning procedure, leading to long term colour memory and the development of attention-like processing. When bees learn fine colour discrimination tasks then speed-accuracy tradeoffs are observed both between individuals, and for groups learning tasks of different degrees of difficulty, suggesting high level ‘executive’ decision making within the bees’ brain for understanding the implications of different problem solving strategies. The bee brain is also able to bind colour information as a predictor of flower temperature, with important implications for what plant species might perform best in different environments in a changing world. Considering spatial vision, the insect visual system can learn to reliably recognise face stimuli using configural type processing, and learn complex rules governing relationships between different elemental features. This behavioural evidence suggests that relatively small brains can very quickly learn to adapt to new challenges, and thus provides important indicators of how bee pollinators may cope with changing environmental conditions.

Assoc. Prof Dyer is currently based in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT as an ARC QII Fellow. He is also an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow (Germany). Completed PhD (2000) under Robin Williams and Bill Muntz at RMIT, and then completed several post doc positions (Cambridge University in theUK, La Trobe University, Monash University, Mainz and Wuerzburg Universities in Germany).

Published Feb. 1, 2013 12:21 PM - Last modified Jan. 19, 2021 8:39 AM