Much like the way humans recognize faces, bees are born with an innate ability to find and remember flowers.

We all saw a bee fly past us and land on a nearby flower. But how does she know what she is looking for?

And when she first leaves the hive, how does she even know what a flower looks like?

Our article, published in Frontiers in ecology and evolution, set out to find out if bees have an innate “flower pattern” in their minds that lets them know exactly what they are looking for even if they have never seen a flower before.

Read more: One, then a few: how to count like a bee

A history of partnership

Plants and pollinators need each other to survive and thrive. Many plants need animals to carry pollen between flowers so that the plants can reproduce. Meanwhile, pollinators depend on plants for food (like pollen and nectar) and nesting resources (like leaves and resin).

Thus, flowering plants and pollinators were in partnership for millions of years. This relationship often results in flowers having developed certain signals such as colors, shapes and patterns that are more attractive to bees.

At the same time, bees’ dependence on floral resources such as nectar and pollen led them to learn flower signals effectively. They must be able to tell which flowers in their environment will provide a reward and which will not. If they didn’t know the difference, they would waste time looking for nectar in the wrong flowers.

Our results show that bees can quickly and efficiently learn to distinguish flowers of slightly different shapes – much like how humans can expertly distinguish faces.

The amazing brain of bees

The brains of bees are tiny. They weigh less than a milligram and contain only 960,000 neurons (compared to 86 billion in the human brain). But despite this, they demonstrate exceptional learning abilities.

Their learning extends to many difficult cognitive tasks, including maze navigation, size discrimination, counting, quantity discrimination, and even simple math!

Read more: Bees join elite group of species that understand concept of zero as a number

So we know that bees can learn all kinds of information about flowers, but we wanted to find out how they find flowers on their first foraging trip outside the hive. We also investigated whether experienced foragers developed a bias in their foraging strategies and flower preferences.

To test this, we tricked two groups of bees to discriminate between sets of flower images. One group was raised in a beehive inside a greenhouse without flowers and therefore had never been exposed to flowers. We put a color mark on these bees at birth, so we could track them once they emerged from the hive to forage two weeks later.

By keeping a beehive inside the greenhouse, these bees had never been exposed to flowers. We marked the bees in color to identify them after they emerged from the hive to forage.
Scarlett howard

The second group consisted of experienced foragers who had encountered many flowers in their life.

We trained the two groups to distinguish between images of two flowers found in nature, using a sugar water reward to choose the right option when directed. We also trained the two groups to distinguish the same flowers with the petals separated and scrambled at random.

Images of the stimuli used.  At the top there are two real grayscale flower images.  At the bottom is the same visual information but scrambled to not look like a flower.
We trained ‘flower naive’ and experienced bees to distinguish between images of different flowers and another set where visual information was blurred.
Scarlett howard

How well and how quickly the bees learned to distinguish images of whole flowers, compared to the time it took to distinguish scrambled petals, would tell us what information they preferred to learn.

Naive and experienced flower pickers have learned to distinguish images of whole flowers better and faster than scrambled petals. However, naive flower bees appeared to have less bias as they also learned to distinguish between scrambled information, whereas experienced foragers could not.

The results reveal that naive flower bees have an innate flower pattern that helps them learn and distinguish new flowers. At the same time, experienced foragers turn to certain forms of flowers as they gain experience in foraging.

Overall, bees use an innate flower pattern to find flowers first, and also rely on their past knowledge as they become more experienced.

Innate recognition in other animals

While our findings on bees are remarkable, they are linked to similar abilities in other species.

Different species have developed brains that tune in to important stimuli. For example, humans and other primates can detect, process, recognize, and distinguish the faces of other members of their species. Research has shown even human infants can detect and recognize very well the faces of others.

Our preference for faces and our ability to recognize them have likely evolved due to the importance of having to distinguish between friends, enemies and strangers. It sounds like bees who have to process images of whole flower shapes better than images of scrambled petals – due to the importance of recognizing the shape of the flower for survival.

In the same way, social paper wasps assess their relationship with hive mates based on the different facial markings of friends and foes. Much like bees, they do this using a combination of innate mechanisms and lived experience.

About Roberto Frank

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