Going about their day-to-day business, bees have no need to be able to recognise human faces. Yet in 2005, when Adrian Dyer from Monash University trained the fascinating insects to associate pictures of human faces with tasty sugar snacks, they seemed to be able to do just that. But Martin Giurfa from the Universit de Toulouse, France, suspected that that the bees weren't learning to recognise people. 'Because the insects were rewarded with a drop of sugar when they chose human photographs, what they really saw were strange flowers. The important question was what strategy do they use to discriminate between faces,' explains Giurfa. Wondering whether the insects might be learning the relative arrangement (configuration) of features on a face, Giurfa contacted Dyer and suggested that they go about systematically testing which features a bee learned to recognise to keep them returning to Dyer's face photos. The team publish their discovery that bees can learn to recognise the arrangement of human facial features on 29 January 2010 in the Journal of Experimental Biology at http://jeb.biologists.org.
Teaming up with Aurore Avargues-Weber, the team first tested whether the bees could learn to distinguish between simple face-like images. Using faces that were made up of two dots for eyes, a short vertical dash for a nose and a longer horizontal line for a mouth, Avargues-Weber trained individual bees to distinguish between a face where the features were cramped together and another where the features were set apart. Having trained the bee to visit one of the two faces by rewarding it with a weak sugar solution, she tested whether it recognised the pattern by taking away the sugar reward and waiting to see if the bee returned to the correct face. It did.
So the bees could learn to distinguish patterns that were organised like faces, but could they learn to 'categorize' faces? Could the insects be train
|Contact: Kathryn Knight|
The Company of Biologists