Bees Can Be Trained to Recognize Human Faces

Tiny bee brains could serve as models for facial recognition systems
bee and flower
Bees know their own smarts. aussiegall (CC Licensed)

Bees need not recognize human faces when going about their pollination business. Yet scientists have now found that they can train bees to recognize the arrangement of human facial features, by rewarding the classy striped insects with sugar. That could inspire new facial recognition systems, given that bees manage this feat with brains the size of a microdot.

The bee ability to distinguish between human faces was first noticed by Adrian Dyer, a vision scientist from Monash University in Australia. But biologist Martin Giurfa from the Université de Toulouse in France wanted to better understand how bees managed to learn facial features, and so he teamed up with Dyer to carry out a more systematic test.

It turns out that bees don’t consciously recognize individual people, so much as the relative pattern that makes up a face. Researchers tested this by first training the bees to recognize simple faces made of dots and slashes, and then seeing if the bees could distinguish between two different faces. The bees passed the test.

Next, the research team gave the bees a choice between new faces and a random assort of dots and slashes. The bees still ended up homing in on the face-like patterns. Equally as impressive, the bees learned to recognize stick-and-dot faces against face-shaped photographs, and still identified the correct faces without the photo backgrounds.

Other insects have continued to prompt new research on full-color night vision for drivers. But face-recognition technology has a special place in the hearts of governments and security agencies, so we’d expect to hear some follow-up on this.