You can't fool bees

18 December 2009

Honeybees are cleverer than we previously assumed. Research published recently in Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that the insects aren’t fooled by optical illusions meant to trick them into thinking that they are travelling further than they actually are.

Sharoni Shafir and Andrew Barron (at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Macquarie University) found that the bees take account of multiple environmental indicators when assessing the profitability and distance of a food source.  It is well known that bees communicate the distance and profitability a food source to their colonies using elaborate waggle dances, but the researchers wanted to determine whether the bees use purely visual clues to estimate the distance they have travelled.

They tested this by creating special tunnels for the bees which used optical illusions to give the bees the impression that they had travelled further to obtain food than they actually had.  However, analysis of the bees’ dances after they had returned from the deceptive tunnel showed that they were not taken in by the illusion, and in fact used the time spent travelling and other clues to accurately communicate the correct distance to the rest of the colony.

The research shows that although bees do use visual clues as a navigational aid, they are able to assess a complex set of other environmental clues to ensure that their colony receive the most reliable and accurate information on the most valuable food sources.