Honey bees are sensitive to odors, tastes, and colors, including ultraviolet. Learning is essential for efficient foraging, Honey bees are unlikely to make many repeat visits if a plant provides little in the way of reward. Foragers were trained to enter a simple Y-shaped maze that had been marked at the entrance with a particular color, inside the maze was a branching point where the bee was required to choose between two paths. One path, which led to the reward, was marked with the same color that had been used at the entrance to the maze. Foragers learned to choose the path, and continued to do so when a different kind of marker was substituted for the colored markers. One of the most common ways that honey bees, Apis mellifera, just as vertebrate species such as mice or pigeons that can be trained to perform associative learning tasks, honey bees make excellent subjects for tasks involving discrimination and color memory. Beginning in the early 1900s, scientists Karl von Frisch and later Randolf Menzel began asking questions about the existence, learning rates, memory, and timing of color vision in bees. The Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch began the exploration of color vision in honey bees when he asked the first question in 1919, by making use of bees associative learning abilities he performed an elegant experiment to show that honey bees were in fact capable of color discrimination. To test color vision, von Frisch first trained his honey bees to feed from a dish filled with a nectar-like sugar water. This dish was placed over a piece of blue colored cardboard so that the color was visible to the bees as they fed. If bees could not discriminate between colors, they would be unable to distinguish the blue piece from the many gray toned pieces, the bees largely ignored the gray pieces which had not been rewarded. This directed exploration and targeting of the blue cardboard showed the bees could indeed discriminate between the gray and blue shades, showing that bees do possess color vision. Von Frisch repeated this same experiment to show that bees produced the same results with other colors like violet. Later other researchers were able to apply this excellent experimental design to other vertebrates as well, after von Frischs initial studies, the German scientist Randolf Menzel continued the study of color vision in honey bees and performed more detailed tests. He was curious about which colors honey bees would be able to learn fastest and he used lights of varying color and intensity to illuminate circles of light on a solid surface. This set up was similar to the pieces of colored cardboard employed by von Frisch and he could simply adjust the projection of the light to create a wide variety of different experimental set-ups. To test the intricacies of the bee color vision von Frisch had established, to do this, Menzel used a projected circle of colored light surrounding a small dish that could hold a sugar-water reward. Menzel then projected a second circle of colored light surrounding a second dish some distance away from the first
Bees learn in a variety of ways.
Swarming bees require good communication to all congregate in the same place
Figure 1. Testing for color vision in honey bees. The majority of bees flew directly to the dish with the blue background as they had been trained to do. Thus, they were able to discriminate between gray and blue backgrounds, showing their capability for color vision.