Our 'Bee-Eye Camera' Helps Us Support Bees, Grow Food And Protect The Environment

To help draw bees’ attention, flowers that are pollinated by bees have typically evolved to send very strong colour signals. Credit:  Shutterstock

To help draw bees’ attention, flowers that are pollinated by bees have typically evolved to send very strong colour signals. Credit: Shutterstock

Walking through our gardens in Australia, we may not realise that buzzing around us is one of our greatest natural resources. Bees are responsible for pollinating about a third of food for human consumption, and data on crop production suggests that bees contribute more than US$235 billion to the global economy each year.

By pollinating native and non-native plants, including many ornamental species, honeybees and Australian native bees also play an essential role in creating healthy communities – from urban parks to backyard gardens.

Despite their importance to human and environmental health, it is amazing how little we know how about our hard working insect friends actually see the world.

By learning how bees see and make decisions, it's possible to improve our understanding of how best to work with bees to manage our essential resources.

How bee vision differs from human vision

A new documentary on ABC TV, The Great Australian Bee Challenge, is teaching everyday Australians all about bees. In it, we conducted an experiment to demonstrate how bees use their amazing eyes to find complex shapes in flowers, or even human faces.

Humans use the lens in our eye to focus light onto our retina, resulting in a sharp image. By contrast, insects like bees use a compound eye that is made up of many light-guiding tubes called ommatidia.

Insects in the city: a honeybee forages in the heart of Sydney. Credit: Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

Insects in the city: a honeybee forages in the heart of Sydney. Credit: Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

The top of each ommatidia is called a facet. In each of a bees' two compound eyes, there are about 5000 different ommatidia, each funnelling part of the scene towards specialised sensors to enable visual perception by the bee brain.

Since each ommatidia carries limited information about a scene due to the physics of light, the resulting composite image is relatively "grainy" compared to human vision. The problem of reduced visual sharpness poses a challenge for bees trying to find flowers at a distance.

To help draw bees' attention, flowers that are pollinated by bees have typically evolved to send very strong colour signals. We may find them beautiful, but flowers haven't evolved for our eyes. In fact, the strongest signals appeal to a bee's ability to perceive mixtures of ultraviolet, blue and green light.

Building a bee eye camera

Despite all of our research, it can still be hard to imagine how a bee sees.

How we see fine detail with our eyes, and how a bee eye camera views the same information at a distance of about 15cm. Credit: Sue Williams and Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

How we see fine detail with our eyes, and how a bee eye camera views the same information at a distance of about 15cm. Credit: Sue Williams and Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

So to help people (including ourselves) visualise what the world looks like to a bee, we built a special, bio-inspired "bee-eye" camera that mimics the optical principles of the bee compound eye by using about 5000 drinking straws. Each straw views just one part of a scene, but the array of straws allows all parts of the scene to be projected onto a piece of tracing paper.

The resulting image can then be captured using a digital camera. This project can be constructed by school age children, and easily be assembled multiple times to enable insights into how bees see our world.

Because bees can be trained to learn visual targets, we know that our device does a good job of mimicking a bees visual acuity.

Student projects can explore the interesting nexus between science, photography and art to show how bees see different things, like carrots – which are an important part of our diet and which require bees for the efficient production of seeds.

Yellow flower (Gelsemium sempervirens) as it appears to our eye, as taken through a UV sensitive camera, and how it likely appears to a bee. Credit: Sue Williams and Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

Yellow flower (Gelsemium sempervirens) as it appears to our eye, as taken through a UV sensitive camera, and how it likely appears to a bee. Credit: Sue Williams and Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

Understanding bee vision helps us protect bees

Bees need flowers to live, and we need bees to pollinate our crops. Understanding bee vision can help us better support our buzzy friends and the critical pollination services they provide.

In nature, it appears that flowers often bloom in communities, using combined cues like colour and scent to help important pollinators find the area with the best resources.

Having lots of flowers blooming together attracts pollinators in much the same way that boxing day sales attract consumers to a shopping centre. Shops are better together, even though they are in competition – the same may be true for flowers!

This suggests that there is unlikely to be one flower that is "best" for bees. The solution for better supporting bees is to incorporate as many flowers as possible – both native and non native – in the environment. Basically: if you plant it, they will come.

We are only starting to understand how bees see and perceive our shared world – including art styles – and the more we know, the better we can protect and encourage our essential insect partners.

How a bee eye camera works by only passing the constructive rays of light to form an image. Credit: Sue Williams and Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

How a bee eye camera works by only passing the constructive rays of light to form an image. Credit: Sue Williams and Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

Clip from “The Great Australian Bee Challenge, Episode 2.

Looking at the fruits and vegetables of bee pollination; a bee camera eye view of carrots. Credit: Sue Williams and Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

Looking at the fruits and vegetables of bee pollination; a bee camera eye view of carrots. Credit: Sue Williams and Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

Bees Can Learn the Difference Between European And Australian Indigenous Art Styles In A Single Afternoon

PHYS.ORG By Andrew Barron January 29, 2019

A painting titled The Bridge Over the Waterlily Pond by Claude Monet. Credit:  AAP/National Gallery of Victoria

A painting titled The Bridge Over the Waterlily Pond by Claude Monet. Credit: AAP/National Gallery of Victoria

We've known for a while that honey bees are smart cookies. They have excellent navigation skills, they communicate symbolically through dance, and they're the only insects that have been shown to learn abstract concepts.

Honey bees might also add the title of art connoisseur to their box of tricks. In part one of ABC Catalyst's The Great Australian Bee Challenge, we see honey bees learning to tell the difference between European and Australian Indigenous art in just one afternoon.

Does this mean honey bees are more cultured than we are?

Perhaps not, but the experiment certainly shows just how quickly honey bees can learn to process very complex information.

How the experiment worked

Bees were shown four different paintings by the French impressionist artist Claude Monet, and four paintings by Australian Indigenous artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili.

At the centre of each of the paintings was placed a small blue dot. To make the difference between the artists meaningful to the honey bees, every time they landed on the blue dot on a Marawili painting they found a minute drop of sugar water. Every time they visited the blue dot on a Monet painting, however, they found a drop of dilute quinine. The quinine isn't harmful, but it does taste bitter.

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

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

Having experienced each of the Monet and Marawili paintings the bees were given 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 the 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 paintings by Monet and Picasso.

Bees are quick to learn

This kind of work does not show 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 pallets in their art. We describe this as their distinctive style. These styles are recognisable to us, even if most of us would be hard pressed to describe exactly what makes a Marawili different 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 whatever differences best distinguished the set of Marawili paintings from the set of Monets.

(NOTE: The video is currently unavailable.)

Bee colour vision is excellent, if different from ours. Bees can see ultraviolet wavelengths of light, but not red. Bees can pick up structure and edges in paintings by zipping quickly back and forth in front of them to detect abrupt changes in the brightness of an image.

In our experiment, bees could detect enough differences between the Marawili and Monet paintings to learn to tell them apart. The bees were not memorising the paintings; instead they were learning whatever information best distinguished a Monet from a Marawili. They could then maximise their collection of sugar, and avoid any bitter surprises.

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

Similarities between art and flowers

This experiment taps into a highly evolved honey bee skill. Bees did not evolve to differentiate between artists, but their survival depends on learning to tell which flowers are most likely to offer the best pollen and nectar they need to feed their hive.

Because of this, bees have evolved the ability to very quickly process complex and subtle visual information. These learning skills are on display when bees forage on flowers. Bees quickly learn to pick up on the subtlest distinction between fresh and older flowers, be it colour, odour or texture, which can betray the blooms that are most likely to contain a drop of nectar.

Honey bees break any stereotypes we may have that insects are dumb, instinct-driven animals. They have an intelligence that is very different from ours, but one that has evolved to be fit for the task of a bee doing what a bee has to do.

It is hard not to admire such clever and discriminating creatures.

Explore further: To bee an art critic, choosing between Picasso and Monet

Provided by: The Conversation

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2019-01-bees-difference-european-australian-indigenous.html#jCp