Videogaming bees shed light on insect attention

Now don’t underestimate these little insects. The article below is taken from Wired – enjoy the read!


Bees have been playing videogames as part of a study into how the insects pay attention to their surroundings.


Video gaming Honeybee

Videogaming Honeybee (Source: Shutterstock)


Researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute in Australia implanted electrodes into the brains of bees. The bees were then tethered and put onto an air-suspended ball. Walking on the ball would control a blinking green light on a screen.

The idea was to test whether bees were using top-down attention (making choices about where to focus their attention) or bottom-up attention (simply reacting to external stimuli like light and noise).

“Often when we think of attention as humans, we think of it as almost related to consciousness, this goal-directed attention,” said Bruno van Swinderen, lead researcher. “Instead of being reactive, you’re choosing something and that choice exists in your brain before you make any kind of motor behaviour […] so we’re interested in finding ways to see if an insect has that.”

By monitoring the frequency of the bee’s brain activity and matching it to the frequency of one of the pulsing lights, the researchers could tell exactly where the bees were focusing. When there were lots of different frequency objects available selective behaviour in the medulla (an optic ganglion) was observed prior to the behavioural selection of a particular stimulus.

According to Van Swinderen, “when we see a frequency tag that’s associated with an object suddenly starts flaring up in the optic lobes, it means the bee will actually select that object and move it to the front and walk towards it.” These effects were reduced when the bees were unable to control the visual displays.

“People always knew that bees were smart — they’ve got their dance language and do all these really sophisticated kinds of learning,” said Van Swinderen. “The surprise now is that what’s happening in their brain when they’re doing these smart things is quite similar to what’s happening in the human brain.”

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