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

Honeybee Memories: Another Piece of the Alzheimer's Puzzle

Medical Press    December 8, 2106

A breakdown of memory processes in humans can lead to conditions such as Alzheimer's and dementia. By looking at the simpler brain of a honeybee, new research published in Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, moves us a step towards understanding the different processes behind long-term memory formation.

"We show that DNA methylation is one molecular mechanism that regulates memory specificity and re-learning, and through which experiences of the organism could be accumulated and integrated over their lifetime," says Dr Stephanie Biergans, first author of the study and researcher at the University of Queensland, Australia.

"Honeybees have an amazing capacity to learn and remember," says the researcher. "They can count up to four, and orientate themselves by learning patterns and landmarks. They are also social insects that interact, teach and learn, making them successful foragers. Bees remember how to find a food source, how good the source was, and how to return to the hive."

As such, the honeybee can form complex memories through processes much like those happening in human brains. But, the honeybee brain is simpler and they have a smaller genome. This makes them an ideal model for investigating how the different processes needed for long-term memories happen.

Scientists know that when a memory is formed,  can trigger physical changes to the brain, including new or altered neural connections and activity. These build up over a lifetime to create our long-term memory.

One series of molecular changes that can occur due to experience or environmental changes and that affect memory formation is the differential expression of certain genes, mediated, among others, through processes collectively called epigenetic mechanisms. They regulate gene expression through modifications of the DNA or its associated proteins, without changing the genes themselves.

"We knew that DNA methylation is an epigenetic process that occurs in the brain and is related to memory formation," Biergans explains. "When we block this process in honeybees it affects how they remember."

Biergans taught two groups of honeybees to expect sugar in the presence of a particular smell. One group learned over an extended period, being exposed to the sugar and smell together many times. The other was given the combination only once. Using an inhibitor compound, Biergans halted DNA methylation in some bees in each group. The bees'  in the two groups were tested and compared, with and without, DNA methylation occurring. By changing the smell that accompanied the food, Biergans and colleagues also found that DNA methylation affects how a bee can re-learn.

"When the bees were presented with sugar and a smell many times together, the presence of DNA methylation increased memory specificity - they were less responsive to a novel odour. On the other hand, when only introduced to the combination once, DNA methylation decreased specificity," she summarises.

For a foraging honeybee, this makes total sense. When a bee gets food from a single flower, it's not worthwhile remembering how it smells. That bee will have a general memory of the site, but will shop around and try other flowers - there is no specificity to its foraging. But, when each flower with that smell proves over and over to be a good source of nourishment, the bee will stick to those flowers and seek them out.

DNA methylation also occurs in the human brain and the team's findings are key to understanding how we remember. And, how we forget.

"By understanding how changes to the epi-genome accumulate, manifest and influence brain function, we may, in the future, be able to develop treatments for brain diseases that also develop over a lifetime. There is thought to be a genetic predisposition for some conditions, such as Alzheimer's and dementia, but in many cases environmental factors determine whether the disease will manifest," Biergans concludes.

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Angry Bees Are Easily Distracted By Food, Study Finds

The Washington Post    By Rachael Feltman   December 23, 2015

You know those Snickers commercials about how easy it is to get angry when you're in need of a snack? 

Well, scientists haven't exactly shown that honey bees get "hangry," but the word certainly comes to mind when reading a new study on bee aggression. In the study, published Tuesday in Nature Communications, researchers led by Martin Giurfa at the University of Toulouse and Judith Reinhard of the University of Queensland found that honey bees put on the war path were quite easily put off it by the scent of food.

When a guard bee senses a predator using visual cues like color and movement, it sends out pheromones -- chemicals that illicit an unconscious, automatic physical response in other members of the same species -- to put soldier bees inside the nest on high alert. This puts the bees into kamikaze mode, since any stinging attack leaves the species Apis mellifera sans several internal organs. At least 40 chemical compounds have been found in the pheromone cocktail that calls honey bees to war, but the main component, isoamyl acetate, is enough on its own to make a soldier bee ready to die for the cause.

Previous research has shown that bees and other insects can sometimes get confused by exposure to more than one kind of pheromone. But researchers wanted to see whether the scent chemicals produced by flowers might have any effect.

First, they had to make some honey bees angry, which they did by placing them in an "arena" with an annoying moving target:

Two bees are placed into a container with a moving target and are unaffected by the movement until one of the bees strikes. (Morgan Nouvian (CRCA – QBI)

Two bees are placed into a container with a moving target and an alarm pheromone. The reaction to the sting alarm pheromone can be extremely fast, as evidenced by this pair of bees attacking the moving dummy within seconds of their introduction inside the test arena. (Morgan Nouvian (CRCA – QBI))

But when flowery scents like lavender were added, the bees chilled out. It wasn't simply a question of masking one scent with another -- some food-related scents, like citrus, had no effect -- but the compounds linalool and 2-phenylethanol, along with the scent of lavender (a mix of linalool and other chemicals) seemed to block the aggressive response to the alarm hormone.

Since stinging is such a nasty business, it's not surprising that bees might be hardwired to avoid it in favor of accessing available food for the hive. But the bees didn't have to rely on memories of previously foraged snacks in order to decide what food trumped fighting. Even newly emerged bees, who had never foraged and therefore had no experiential preference for particular flowery smells, were calmed by the lavender-related scents.

The researchers told Live Science that any calming effect of lavender on bees is probably unrelated to the anecdotal calming effect it has on humans. Lavender might be a pleasant, calming scent for a human bubble bath, but for a bee it's like the scent of a juicy burger (if that burger sent out chemical signals that literally drew your body toward it).

But that doesn't mean that humans can't benefit from the study.

"We certainly see great potential for applications to beekeeping," first author Morgane Nouvian, a graduate student at both the University of Queensland and the University of Toulouse, told Live Science. "Developing a product based on our results — for example a scented hand spray [or] cream, or an odor-releasing device to place at the hive entrance — could certainly help reduce the number of bees stinging while [beekeepers are] handling the hives. This method would be a great alternative to the current use of smoke and repellents, because we would be tricking the bees with something that they actually 'like,' and it would thus likely be less stressful for them."

Since constant exposure to venom actually makes beekeepers more likely to become allergic to it than the general population, a product like that would be pretty sweet.

Read at: https://goo.gl/rXQ738