Honey bees may have a better memory for faces than some humans do.
According to several scientific reports, they are able to tell individual faces apart. For a long time, it was thought that such intricate facial recognition was exclusive to large-brained mammals.
More recent studies indicate that some wasps recognize each other by their facial features, and honeybees have the same abilities. They can learn to know human faces as well using visual processing mechanisms. In fact, even though honey bees only have 0.01% of the neurons that humans have, and their tiny brains only have 1 million brain cells compared to the human brain with 86,000 million brain cells, they can recognize and recall individual faces and features.
Visual scientist Adrian Dyer of Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England, wondered if the keen ability of honeybees to differentiate between flowers carried over to them using this talent in other ways, such as to recognize people.
He and his colleagues placed photos of four different people on a board. They taught bees to fly up to a specific face and moved the target face around, then rewarded the bees with a sucrose solution. The bees chose the correct face up to 90% of the time, even after the reward was removed, according to the team’s report in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
This 1:57-minute video by Bayer Bee Care Center shows Professor Adrian Dyer on how bees recognize human faces:
Even two days after they were trained, the bees could still pick out the target face, proving that the memories were anchored in the bee brains. Dyer says this challenges the idea that you need a specialized part of the brain to recognize human faces, since the simple brain of bees can perform this task.
Not everyone agreed with the findings. Ethologist James Gould, who has extensively researched how bees recognize flowers, thinks it is more about shapes and patterns when it comes to bees rather than the evolutionary abilities of humans. Gould said that for bees the human face is just a really strange looking flower.
You can read more here about whether holistic processing requires a large brain.
Other findings by Professor Adrian Dyer of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts of the University of Michigan, reveal more about the neural requirements for such complex cognitive activities.
To see the features of a human face from the perspective of a honeybee, please click here.
As we learn more about how honey bees recognize us, we will understand them even better. Meanwhile, next time a bee buzzes up close and looks at you in the face, don't panic. Just BEE amazed that if you meet again, she will probably recognize you and hopefully you will recognize her, too.