Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Bees Distinguish Works of Art

By Stephen Luntz

Bees can recognise the differences between paintings and show some signs of a capacity to generalise by recognising painting styles.

Bees can recognise the differences between paintings and show some signs of a capacity to generalise by recognising painting styles.

Dr Judith Reinhard of the Queensland Brain Institute put bees into a chamber with two exit holes, each with a print of a painting above – one by Picasso and one by Monet. Behind one exit hole was a tray of sugar solution while the other led only to an empty space. The paintings were matched for dominant colours and lightness, and painting pairs were regularly swapped.

For one set of 25 bees the reward was always below the Monet, while for a similar-sized group the Picasso signalled the way to food, although the painting locations were swapped back and forth. The experiment was carefully controlled to avoid unwanted cues. Only one bee was allowed in the chamber at a time, and the container was changed frequently to remove any effects of pheromones from feeding bees.

The bees became adept at recognising individual paintings within the training pair, and could even manage this with greyscale versions. Reinhard reported in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A: “Honeybees learned to simultaneously discriminate between five different Monet and Picasso paintings, and did not rely on luminance, colour or spatial frequency information”.

The experiment replicates one done with pigeons, but Reinhard says she is not aware of any other non-human species that have such powers of artistic recognition.

After being introduced to hundreds of paintings from the two masters, pigeons learned to recognise a style, preferring the work of the painter whose other art had brought them rewards. Reinhard hoped to achieve the same effects with bees, and did detect a slight preference for new Picasso works by bees rewarded with sugar under his prints. Monet-assigned bees showed no such talent, but Reinhard notes the challenges in apiary training.

“We work with free-flying bees who go elsewhere when flowers are in bloom. They don’t learn much for the first 7–10 days and don’t live that long, so we did not get to expose them to many painting pairs.”

The capacity to recognise paintings in shades of grey might suggest that the bright colours of flowers are unnecessary, but Reinhard says: “Flowers are nowhere near as complex as a painting. Bees don’t need complex image processing to find flowers but to recognise locations.”

Reinhard describes her findings as evidence for insect learning capacity, but admits we do not yet understand how brains with just a million neurons process such complex information.