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Probing Cognitive Capacity in Honeybees

Mandyam V. Srinivasan

Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland and ARC Centre of Excellence for Vision Science, Australia

Our research on honeybee perception and ‘cognition’ is revealing that these insects may not be the simple, reflexive creatures that they were once assumed to be. For example, bees can learn rather general features of flowers and landmarks, such as colour, orientation and symmetry, and apply them to distinguish between objects that they have never previously encountered. Bees exhibit “top-down” processing: that is, they are capable of using prior knowledge to detect poorly visible or camouflaged objects. They can navigate through labyrinths by learning path regularities, and by using symbolic signposts. Bees can learn to form complex associations and to acquire abstract concepts such as “sameness” and “difference”. They are also capable of associative recall: that is, a familiar scent can trigger recall of an associated colour, or even of a navigational route to a food location. When foraging bees are provided with insufficient or ambiguous compass information when flying to a food source, they signal all of the possible locations of the food in their dances, revealing a capacity of the nervous system to compute, represent and signal solutions to ‘under-constrained’ problems. Bees can learn to anticipate and compensate for headwinds and cross winds. Recent work suggests that honeybees are capable of counting landmarks that are encountered sequentially on the way to a food source. And, like humans and a range of other animals, bees display left-right asymmetries in brain function, learning sights and smells better with their right eye and right antenna, respectively. All of these observations suggest that there is no hard dichotomy between invertebrates and vertebrates in the context of perception, learning and ‘cognition’; and that brain size is not necessarily a reliable predictor of perceptual capacity.