Scientists have known for a while that bees are pretty intelligent insects. Their navigation skills are incredible, they communicate symbolically through dance, and they can learn abstract concepts. These guys are definitely at or near the top of the intelligence bar when it comes to insects. But bees may be even smarter than we previously thought. Bees are actually quite sophisticated art connoisseurs, as a new study has demonstrated. A new documentary titled The Great Australian Bee Challenge decided to recreate the original experiment by Dr. Judith Reinhard’s from the University of Queensland in which bees are taught how to tell the difference between different genres of art, specifically European and Australian Indigenous art, in the span of one single afternoon. This experiment may not mean that honey bees are more cultured than we are, but it reveals how incredibly fast honey bees are able to process extremely complex information.
The experiment involved showing a group of bees four different paintings by the artist Claude Monet, a French impressionist, and four paintings by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, an Australian Indigenous artist. The researchers placed a small blue dot at the center of each painting. The blue dot on the paintings by Marawili had a tiny drop of sugar water for the bees to drink, but on the Monet paintings the blue dot held a drop of diluted quinine, which isn’t harmful to bees, but tastes bitter. These drops of liquid motivated the bees too learn the differences between the two different styles of art. After the bees experienced all of the different paintings, they were given a test to see how well they learned the lesson. The bees were shown paintings by the same two artists again, but ones they hadn’t already seen. Would they be able to tell the difference between a Monet and a Marawili? Every single bee very clearly turned their attention to the Marawili paintings.
Now this experiment doesn’t exactly prove that bees have some kind of artistic style or preference, but rather their competence in learning and being able to then classify different visual information. Bees’ color vision is quite incredible, as they rely heavily on it in order to differentiate between flowers they pollinate. They weren’t simply memorizing the paintings but learning what information they could about what distinguished a Monet from a Marawili, thus helping them avoid the bitter liquid and get the most sugar water they could. The survival of a bee depends on learning how to recognize which flowers will provide the best pollen and nectar they will gather to feed their hive. This is what has made bees develop the ability to process subtle as well as complex visual information very quickly.
Have you ever watched bees choose which flower to land on and pollinate, and wondered what made them choose the one they did?