By Andrew Barron, Associate Professor, Macquarie University. . First published on The Convervsation
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.
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.