Bees stay attentive in a virtual reality world

17 Mar 2014

Bees have been found to have selective attention and key components of consciousness in a QBI study performed at UQ.

By recording the brain activity of bees behaving in a virtual reality environment, researchers at QBI discovered that honeybees displayed selective attention when they were in control and able to manipulate visual displays.

Senior author of the study, Associate Professor Bruno van Swinderen, said that electrical recordings from bees' brains picked up attention-like activity quite early in the visual pathway.

“From recording throughout the bee brain, we were surprised to find attention processes occurred in the bees’ optic lobes, which is where visual stimuli are first processed,” Associate Professor van Swinderen said.

“We recorded brain activity while they are walking in a virtual reality environment, and just like you could play a computer game and lead yourself around, the bees are doing the same thing – they are in control,” he said.

“Their brain activity increased when they were in control, and decreased when they weren’t able to manipulate their environment.

“Their brain activity also predicted what visual choices they subsequently made, suggesting that they have the ability to exercise active thought and attention.”

During testing the tethered bees were walking on a ball suspended by air and given choices of visual stimuli on screens surrounding them.

By walking on the ball, they were able to rotate the display, which in turn allowed them to face selected visual stimuli, somewhat like humans playing a first-person video game.

“People think of insects as small robots that are purely reactive, but they are probably actively thinking about what they want to do – not exactly like humans, but a representation of what they want to attend to is already in their brain before they act,” he said.

“Bees have the basic components of consciousness – they have attention mechanisms, and they’ve got learning and memory mechanisms, and each animal has its own history of experiences.

“Together, that’s probably what makes us conscious; we just have a different human history.”

The findings do not mean bees are smarter than previously thought, just that bees’ brain activity can reflect their choices, their control of visual stimuli around them, and how they pay attention to the world.

The study is published in PNAS and was supported by an Australian Research Council Grant and Future Fellowship.

Media: Mikaeli Costello, +61 401 580 685 or; Associate Professor Bruno van Swinderen, +61 7 3346 6332, +61 420 365 450 or