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Bees = humans, in false memory at least.

By Dave Armstrong - 01 Mar 2015 19:0:0 GMT
Bees = humans, in false memory at least.

We have related many stories and blog posts on the ecology and the plight of many species of bee. Now we have news from a specialist’s laboratory with incredibly complex research on how, for the first time in a non-human animal, bumblebees’ confusion resembles our own false memories.Bombus terrestris image; Credit: © Shutterstock

False memory is more than a concept. We often make up memories that bear false witness in court or colour aspects of our lives without realising they are untrue. Animals have never been investigated for these traits of behaviour and bees would be the last to suspect of unreliability. We look on social insects as model citizens of their vast empires, not as liars! Here are a plethora of stories on how both bumble- and honey-bees police and puzzle and cope with pesticide! The famed bee biologist Lars Chittka resides during his buzzing hours at Queen Mary University (one of the many parts of London University in the UK.) He has related much of interest as we combed through his publications on bee conditioning, for example, and how they utilise their social interaction.

Here, however, he collaborates with his student Kathryn L. Hunt on how the first non-human can merge 2 traces of memory from a training session. Von Frisch began the scientific study of honeybee, Apis mellifica, waggle dances more than 80 years ago. Now, few researchers can match his earnest enthusiasm, but there are some. Bumblebees such as Bombus terrestris have a different bee style in learning colour, pattern and scent IDs for flowers they use. Errors in their performance are not, however, always simple learning failures or memory limitations being stretched.

The Bombus in these experiments were trained to associate yellow flowers and black-and-white ringed flowers with a sweet reward. Then a 3rd type of flower, constructed from yellow and black rings, was used for some bees in similar tests and the insects remembered their most recent rewarder. After a gap of 1-3 days, the memory was intact at first, but later results on that day proved interesting. The bees then began selecting the 3rd type of flower, even when they’d never seen it before. Confusion seemed to have set in.

Kathryn and Lars agree that this memory merge resembles human error in memory conjunction. Lars himself has performed recent human experiments where those who learn sets of classification rules well are very prone to these false memories. The ability to recognise a commonality in different events helps an animal in a novel situation. This ability may well compromise the other abilities we have to remember close detail, though!

Insects obviously have smaller memory storage than primates, so the ability to lump classes of objects together may save capacity for them could prove more important than in the human memory. Lifetime experience in bumblebees, as they are tracked by radar will next tell us how they accumulate their aide-memoire. For the location of the full paper, see it published in Current Biology this week as Merging of Long-Term Memories in an Insect.