Channeling da Vinci

Impressionist or cubist? Bee-ats me!

Pigeons and honeybees discriminate between artistic styles

December 3, 2012


Usually when someone groups “the birds and the bees” together, it is a clumsy attempt at explaining human sexuality. But science has finally given us a non-squirm inducing reason to group them together: art. Both of these flying creatures are able to discriminate between the artistic styles of Monet and Picasso, demonstrating their ability to process complex visual information with ease.

“The cool thing is that, bees do not have any evolutionary reason to discriminate between artistic styles, but yet they can do it,” says Wen Wu, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Queensland, Australia, and lead author of a new study which involved showing art to bees.

In the study, recently published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A, Wu and her team of researchers put one honeybee at a time into a wooden tunnel. At the end of the tunnel they placed one Monet print and one Picasso print. They also placed a feeder filled with a sugary solution in front of one of the prints as a reward, but a screen prevented the bees from seeing the feeders. That way, the only visual information the bees could use to find the sugar water was the paintings. By repeatedly placing the sugar water-filled feeder in front of either Monet or Picasso paintings, the bees were trained to recognize that specific artist’s style.

But when new paintings by the same artists replaced the pairs with which the bees had been trained, the bees did not perform as well.  The rate at which they correctly identified the art style was still above that of chance, but their performance was somewhat hindered by the novelty of the paintings.

Interestingly, the bees did slightly better when the new paintings were presented in greyscale than when they were in color. “Maybe it was easier for the bees to generalise to the new greyscale images,” says Wu. “This shows that the bees were not relying on colors per se during discrimination.”

Being able to process complicated visual information is essential for honeybees, which rely heavily on their compound eyes to locate pollen-rich flowers. Not only do they need to be able to recognize a particularly lucrative type of flower, but they also need to generalize the flower’s beneficial characteristics to new types of flowers they might encounter during foraging trips.

“Color might be the first thing we think that the bees are sensitive to, however, our study shows that bees are sensitive to all of the patterns that make up the painting style,” says Wu.

A very similar study was conducted using pigeons in 1995. A team of researchers from Keio University in Japan trained pigeons to recognize 10 paintings by either Monet or Picasso with a minimum of 90 percent accuracy.  Then they presented the birds with paintings they had never seen before, some by Monet and Picasso, and some by Braque, Cézanne and Delacroix. They also included a few that the birds were familiar with to separate the effect of training from the learning effect.

The birds were much better at transferring the skills they had acquired in their initial training to paintings that they had never seen before compared to the bees in Wu’s study. It is possible that having a birdbrain might not be a bad thing after all.

Wu, who says she felt privileged to work with the bees at the University of Queensland, is now turning her attention to humans’ sensitivity to style in the hopes of understanding what lies behind our artistic assessments. “If a simple organism [like a bee] can differentiate between artistic styles, then, maybe art is not as sophisticated as we might think.”


About the Author

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Originally from Montreal, Arielle is a jock who loves photography, making graphics and attending poetry slams. She discovered a passion for science writing while studying the territorial behaviors of the red-backed salamander for her undergraduate thesis, and now interns for Quartz, where she writes about science and tech that impacts the economy. Follow her on Twitter @ArielleDRoss and check out her website,


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