Honeybees are learning experts. Bees find flowers with lots of nectar and pollen, learn their color, location and smell — and also learn directions and landmarks back to the hive.
At the University of Arizona, my students and I study bees to find out how learning works. The mechanisms of how nerve cells process information are the same across the animal kingdom.
We train bees to associate a
color or smell with a sugar reward, such as “blue” means “food.”
As in people, some bees seem smarter than others. We found domesticated “European” bees raised by beekeepers learn faster than feral “Africanized” bees. We compared their brains and found a particular learning center in the brain is larger in smarter bees.
To record the electrical activity of individual nerve cells in bee brains, we use bumblebees because they are larger. We present bumblebees with smell, color or movement stimuli while recording from individual visual nerve cells to see how they process the information.
We found cells change their responses quickly as the bee learns. Once a color has been paired with a sugar reward, the cell will respond more strongly to that color, but not to others.
Nerve cells in bee brains and human brains code colors the same way. Thus bees help us understand how our own brain works.