Bees can recognize human faces. Run for your lives!

An old folk myth claims that if you kill a bee, its hivemates will remember your face and come and get you. That’s a canard, of course, but a team of British and German scientists recently discovered something even spookier: Bees can recognize individual human faces. In an experiment, they put a bunch of pictures of faces in front of some bees, and put sugary liquid on a select few of the photos to attract the insects. When the bees were later shown the photos without any sugary liquid, they made a beeline (sorry, I couldn’t resist) for the ones that had previously been sugar-ified. From World Science:

The bees learned to distinguish the correct face from the wrong one with better than 80 percent accuracy, even when the faces were similar, and regardless of where the photos were placed, the researchers found. Also, just like humans, the bees performed worse when the faces were flipped upside-down. [snip]

Moreover, “Two bees tested two days after the initial training retained the information in long-term memory,” they wrote. One scored about 94 percent on the first day and 79 percent two days later; the second bee’s score dropped from about 87 to 76 percent during the same time frame.

Among the many mindblowing implications of the study is that it bursts apart the idea that facial recognition is rilly rilly difficult. Up until now, many neuroscientists have assumed that because facial recognition is evolutionarily crucial, and because we appear to evolved a section of the brain — the fusiform gyrus — that deals primarily with facial recognition, that this task is hellishly hard. But if bees can do it, and educated fleas can do it (man, I just cannot stop myself today, sorry), maybe face-recognition isn’t as cognitively difficult as we assume.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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