Could the humble honeybee, which has a brain the size of a grass seed, be capable of authenticating a work of art? Scientists from the University of Queensland's (UQ) Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), the UQ School of Psychology and the Federal University of Sao Carlos have found that they can.
Using Cubist paintings by Picasso and Impressionist paintings by Monet, a group of scientists led by QBI researcher Dr Judith Reinhard set out to determine whether a honeybee could tell the difference between different styles of painting.
Having already determined that bees are able to distinguish between landscape scenes, types of flowers, and even human faces, Dr. Reinhard and her team wanted to know whether this capacity extended to complex images that humans distinguish on the basis of artistic style.
Using the same 18 Monet and Picasso paintings used by the scientist who determined that pigeons are able to discriminate between artistic styles, it was discovered that bees are indeed able to tell the difference between a Monet and a Picasso.
According to Dr. Reinhard, “We were able to show that honeybees learned to simultaneously discriminate between five different Monet and Picasso paintings, and that they did not rely on luminance, colour, or spatial frequency information.”
For each experiment, two groups of 25 individually marked honeybees were trained separately to discriminate between a pair (or pairs, depending on experiment) of Monet and Picasso paintings. One group of bees was trained to favour a Monet painting over a Picasso painting in exchange for a reward ,while the second group was trained to favour a Picasso painting over a Monet painting in exchange for a reward.
“Our study suggests that discrimination of artistic styles is not a higher cognitive function that is unique to humans, but simply due to the capacity of animals – from insects to humans – to extract and categorise the visual characteristics of complex images,” Dr. Reinhard said.
In other studies, bees have been shown to have the capacity solve complex mathematical problems which keep computers busy for days. Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, discovered in 2009 that insects learn to fly the shortest route between flowers discovered in random order, effectively solving the "travelling salesman problem".
The next step for Dr. Reinhard and her team is to test whether honeybees potentially rely on underlying structural differences between painting styles - in other words the most prominent visual information that is sufficient for classification - when discriminating and categorizing Monet and Picasso paintings.