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How bees shop


What can bees teach us about speed shopping?

Does trading off speed for accuracy pay?

"Bumblebees have been shown to have very fine colour vision – which they can use to find up to 5,000 flowers a day," says says Melbourne scientist Adrian Dyer who first made the observations whilst working in Germany.

Adrian’s study published in Nature casts light on how they do it – and may help us to learn from the bees how to design robot eyes in the future.

Adrian is presenting his research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a British Council sponsored programme to bring public attention to the remarkable unsung achievements of young Australian scientists.

“We tested bumblebees in a colour discrimination task on a virtual flower meadow – when bees were punished for making mistakes, they slowed down and performed even better.”

We showed that some bees consistently make rapid choices but with low precision, while other bees are slow but highly accurate,” says Adrian.

“Moreover, individual bees sacrifice speed in favour of accuracy when errors are not just unrewarded, but penalised with aversive quinine reinforcement. This is the first demonstration of between-individual and within-individual speed-accuracy tradeoffs in an insect. It shows that bees can be trained to perform very difficult tasks.”

We also discovered that bees can discriminate between blue colours just as well as we can – if they learn to take their time.’ Once we thought bees could only see 100 colours – in fact their vision is as good as or better than ours. They’ve also got an amazing sense of smell.

Bees can also see ultraviolet colours. This is a capacity that we don’t have – humans have ultraviolet filters in our eyes. Adrian thinks that this is a trade off for colour constancy – our ability to adjust our perception of colour independent of external lighting.

Why should we care about bee vision? By studying bees we can learn about our own vision and gain insights into how we might design vision systems for robots and other machines. Bees are also essential pollinators for many agricultural crops and have potential as drug and bomb detectors. And I think it’s worth understanding how bee vision works for the sheer wonder of it. They are remarkable creatures.”

Adrian is now researching face recognition at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia.

Niall Byrne | alfa
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