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Busy, and Smart Too

Finding on bee perception puts another ding in the human ego

August 18, 1996

Since Plato and Aristotle coined the concept of cognition in the 4th century BC, humans have proudly drawn distinctions between "lower animals," whose survival depends largely on automatic reactions to external stimuli, and "higher animals," which interpret and evaluate their environments.

A study published earlier this month in the journal Nature, however, questions this classic distinction by pointing out that even the minuscule brains of ordinary bees can recognize and interpret patterns, a feat once thought possible only through reason.

The German team behind the study subjected the bees to tests that would daunt many college students. But the bees came through, learning to look for food only near certain symmetrical or asymmetrical patterns. More than simply memorizing patterns where food had been hidden, the bees demonstrated an ability to create perceptual categories based on geometric ratios. Put another way, it's all in how you look at it.

The bees may have developed their geometric prowess because symmetry is often nature's way of signaling fertility. The most symmetrical rosebay willowherb blossoms, for example, are the ones capable of producing the most nectar. Humans, some scientists argue, may experience a similar attraction. Randy Thornhill, a University of New Mexico scientist, asserts that men with symmetrical faces have more sexual partners than those with asymmetrical ones.

Symmetry, evolutionary biologists say, is a sign of the well-being that springs from a comfortable early life--no debilitating childhood illnesses to weaken and skew the adult. A stag with a large, symmetrical rack of antlers, for example, might be advertising to potential mates that his genes have caused him grow up particularly healthy and strong.

In showing that even small-minded animals like bees can engage in supposedly high-minded acts like perception, the Nature researchers may seem to be depriving us of yet another quality we once regarded as uniquely human. But at least they have brought us one step closer to answering this question posed by hymn writer Isaac Watts in the 18th century: "How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour, / And gather honey all the day / From every opening flower?"

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