Are bees smart? Do they have a memory? Can they solve problems, and be trained to understand concepts like ‘different and same’. Most research in this area has investigated this question in studies involving honey bees. So what were their conclusions?
The short answer to this question is:
Yes, and in fact despite the tiny size of the honey bee brain at 1.9mg1, many scientific experiments have proven that honey bees can be taught to remember, recognize, discriminate and learn.
1. Honey bees can navigate their way through mazes!
That’s right! Scientists initially found that they could teach bees to work their way through a maze using a color coding system. However, they then found the bees can learn to navigate their way out of a maze, even without the assistance of a color code2.
To do this, they investigated the ability of honeybees to learn mazes of four types:
It was found that regularity in the structure of the maze aided recognition and learning in honey bees.
However, whilst performance was best in the constant-turn mazes (having higher regularity of structure), somewhat poorer in the zig-zag mazes, poorer still in the irregular mazes, and poorest in the variable irregular mazes, nevertheless, the bees were ultimately able to learn to navigate all four types of maze3.
2. Color recognition and reward
Bees have the ability to learn and also to be trained to respond to rewards, such that bees can learn to associate rewards with a stimulus, such as colour.
This was proven in 1914 by Karl von Frisch4 who demonstrated that honey bees, not only see colors, they can learn to simultaneously associate a reward with that color.
3. Bomb detection
I have written about this subject elsewhere, so I won’t expand to much here, but it is known that honey bees can be trained to detect bombs.
4. Illness detection
In a similar way, experiments have proven that bees can be trained to associate smells with illness such as cancer.
5. Bees understand concepts like ‘same’ and ‘different’, and ‘above and below’
Scientists proved that honey bees can be trained to select a stimulus based on whether it was the same or different to the test sample, in order to gain a reward.
In other words, it didn’t matter whether bees were required to choose a different stimulus, or the same one as the sample, bees could be trained to do either.
Similarly, honey bees could distinguish between ‘above’ and ‘below’ and could be trained to select one or the other, based on a learned association with a reward5.
6. Bees have a good memory, and can remember and recognize
different human faces!
Scientists have found that honey bees, with their tiny brains not only recognize different human faces, even distinguishing one particular face from another, they can even remember the same face for at least 2 days6!
1. Sayol, Ferran et al. (2020), Data from: Feeding specialisation and longer generation time are associated with relatively larger brains in bees, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.3xsj3txd9
2. Zhang SW, Bartsch K, Srinivasan MV. Maze learning by honeybees. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 1996 Nov; 66(3):267-82.
3. Zhang S, Mizutani A, Srinivasan MV. Maze navigation by honeybees: learning path regularity. Learn Mem. 2000;7(6):363-374. doi:10.1101/lm.32900
4. von Frisch, K. (1914). Der Farbensinn und Formensinn der Biene, Zoologische Jahrbücher. Abteilung für allgemeine Zoologie und Physiologie der Tiere. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
5. Avarguès-Weber Aurore, Giurfa Martin 2013. Conceptual learning by miniature brains. Proc. R. Soc. B.280. 2013. 190720131907.
6. Dyer AG, Neumeyer C, Chittka L. Honeybee (Apis mellifera) vision can discriminate between and recognise images of human faces. J Exp Biol. 2005 Dec;208(Pt 24):4709-14. doi: 10.1242/jeb.01929. PMID: 16326952.