Bee Bee See: Insects Recognising Faces

A pendulous swarm of bees hanging form a branch of a flowering cherry tree
Some three years past I photographed this swarm of honeybees.

Many passers-by stopped while I was there and all were intrigued, surprised, and pleased to have seen it.

Finding this swarm reminded me of a tradition I’ve always found rather moving: “telling the bees”. If a person dies, someone must go down to the hives and let the bees know. Not telling them will bring bad luck on the house.

I don’t believe bees could understand what you say. But might they know a person? Know you, know me?

Possibly yes, in a certain way! Bees have only tiny brains (ours are about 100 000 times bigger, in number of neurons) but bees are experts in their own field and have excellent vision. They can be trained easily, with the reward of sugar water, and there is a huge volume of experimental evidence into how honeybees can use both colour and shape to recognise food sources.

Insects are remarkable and honeybees are remarkable insects. Recent studies have shown honeybees can learn to associate individual human faces with a sweetie reward.

This is rather unexpected. Human beings seem to have evolved a specialised brain area for facial recognition (the “fusiform face area”). But bees don’t have any such area, and we have to assume they are just using their pattern recognition skills in ways nature never intended. To honeybees we must just look rather messy flowers. At least we are roughly symmetrical!

Even more remarkably there are certain paper wasps – paper wasps are ones that build nests from plant fibres – that live in more complicated social structures than honeybees. In their societies individuals need to be distinguishable from each other. The mechanism might have been via smell, or sound, or some other cue, but it’s not, it’s facial recognition. The wasps have different faces, no two the same. There is abundant evidence the wasps recognise others wasps from the colony by their facial appearance, and wasp whose faces don’t fit are driven away. These insects have clearly evolved a specialism, although without a special face recognition area such as ours. Their facial recognition must have piggy-backed on top of the more general recognition skills of their ancestors.

So much intelligence in such tiny brains. It’s another example of how we tend to underestimated the abilities of other animals.


About partialinsight

One evening I had a stroke. Half my sight vanished overnight. Adapting made me grasp how amazing the visual system and brain are. It also taught me to understand disability completely differently and I'm grateful for the lesson.
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2 Responses to Bee Bee See: Insects Recognising Faces

  1. alan j jinks says:


    • I’m pretty sure bees are smarter than some of us give them credit for. But I think they are very smart, I’ve always admired them and often stand and watch how they behave.

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