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If you ever get into a tense confrontation with a bee, and then you have to back down for whatever reason, don’t try to salvage it by saying “Remember the face.” Because it turns out bees can do that.It’s long been known that bees are capable of recognizing and retaining complex visual patterns. That’s one way they’re able to tell different kinds of flowers apart. But a joint project between researchers at the Université de Toulouse and Melbourne’s Monash University has found that bees can be trained to distinguish flowers from human faces, and to recognize the basic configuration of human facial features in different contexts.

A group of bees were shown pictures of human faces and pictures of random geometric designs, and rewarded with sugar when they visited the pictures of faces. After doing this for a while, the bees were shown a different set of images that resembled faces; they flew toward these face-like pictures though they’d never seen them before.

What’s happening here isn’t exactly “learning” — there’s no reason to think that bees know any of the salient differences between people and flowers, like that flowers are rooted in the ground and people can walk, talk, and order pizza. Insofar as a distinction exists in the bee’s mind, they probably think of human faces as very oddly-shaped flowers. Still, they can definitely tell one from the other, and have demonstrated the ability to choose.

While there’s no evidence that bees can recognize and revisit individual human faces, it’s probably too soon to say for sure; bees have a way of surprising us. It was only a few months ago that researchers learned that bees have some kind of internal mechanism that allows them to keep track of energy expenditure, even when flying through optical illusions created in a lab. How they’re able to do this, with brains smaller than a peppercorn, remains a mystery — one that’s only compounded by the new evidence of complex pattern integration. Here’s hoping the ongoing global bee die-off comes to an end soon — it seems we’re losing some of the smartest insects on the planet.

Bees recognize human faces using feature configuration
[Science Daily]