Don't be too proud of never forgetting a face: It turns out even a humble honey bee can distinguish and recall different human faces, says an international team of researchers.
Dr Adrian Dyer, of
Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia and
Cambridge University in the UK, and colleagues, report
their findings online in the
Journal of Experimental Biology.
The researchers have found that honey bees show a
remarkable ability to spot the same human face even days
The training consisted of showing the bees the very same
series of black-and-white pictures of faces that are
used to test human memory. The bees got tasty or sour
rewards for choosing correctly and incorrectly.
The newfound bee ability is likely connected to their
ability to recognise different flowers, says Dyer.
On the other hand, the discovery is one of a long string
over the last decade about various animals which all
point to one startling revelation: It doesn't take a
huge human brain or even a mammalian brain to recognise
individual human faces or do a lot of other complex
"The more we study these creatures, the more we find
they have abilities like ours," says insect vision
researcher Professor Mandyam Srinivasan of
Australian National University in Canberra.
From bees to wasps, spiders and even sheep, other
animals have proven they can not only recognise our
faces, but they navigate mazes, match objects and shapes
and even associate smells with previous experiences.
"Sometimes I wonder what we are doing with two-kilogram
brains," muses Srinivasan.
Bees, for their part, have brains about 20,000 times
less massive than the human brain.
The larger implications of such a small number of
neurons doing such complex tasks are intriguing, but not
obvious, says Dyer.
There is the possibility, for instance, that someday
humans who have experienced brain damage could borrow
the honey bee trick - whatever the trick is - to relearn
facial recognition and other lost abilities, he says.
There are also big implications for the security
industry and artificial intelligence, Srinivasan points
"Face recognition is such a hard thing," he says.
"People are still working on it for computer and
The honey bee experiment implies there is a simpler
solution to the problem that artificial intelligence
researchers haven't yet hit on, he says.
Implications aside, Dyer admits that his new study does
seem a bit strange at first glance. In fact, that's why
he and his colleagues had to sneak the bee experiment in
at the tail end of another experiment at Queen Mary
College in London, he says.
"It's not an idea you'd readily attract funding for,"
Honey bees recognize people
Tuesday, 20 December 2005