Colour insight

How bees solve complex colour puzzles

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Smarter than believed (Credit: National history museum)thevisual system of bees is more sophisticated than believed, claims a study conducted at the University College London (ucl) that showed the insects solved complicated colour puzzles.

The study sheds light on how brain resolves one of the most difficult challenges of vision: recognising different surfaces under different colours of light. Such conditions might prevail when bees look for flowers in the dappled light on the forest floor. The findings appear in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the study, R Beau Lotto and Martina Wicklein from the ucl Institute of Ophthalmology trained bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) to find artificial flowers of a particular colour using a nectar reward. They then tested the bees' ability to find the same flowers in scenes that were simultaneously lit by four differently coloured lights -- ultraviolet-yellow, blue, yellow and green.

For different surfaces under the same light, identifying a particular surface when light colour changes is easy: all the vision needs to do is adapt to the scene's average colour, a bit like adapting to the darkness in a cinema hall. Far more difficult is to recognise the surface or object under multiple lights simultaneously. Earlier, scientists thought bees used to adapt to the scene's average colour. But the ucl study suggests the tiny brains of the bees solve the puzzle -- which the most sophisticated computers still cannot resolve -- by using the colour relationships between objects in a scene that they found most useful in their past lives. The same strategy is also used by humans, and so the findings may enable understanding of the general principles by which any visual system can construct useful behaviour from ambiguous sensory information.

A long-term aim of this research is to exploit this understanding to build seeing robots that, like the bee with a mere one million neurons, can learn to find a simple flower in a meadow.

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