To see like a Honeybee .
9 Feb 2009
The visual system of the honeybee is a marvel . It has one extra colour . It has a navigation system based on stellar and infrared terrain rcognition , as well as wind velocity and magnetic fields .
All in one little package .
Look carefully at a good definition micro-photo of the eye (as in Scientific American of Dec 2008 p54) or www.olympusbioscapes.com
You will see stiff hairs of varying lengths growing right out of the eyeball .
We know that hairs can be wave-guides (eg polar-bear fur )
The eyeball is the platform for the ommatidia and sensory hairs. It is bulbously shaped , with a less pronounced curvature toward the bottom than the top .
The optical-waveguides(hairs) are at right angles to the surface , with the shorter ones to the top . The longer the hair , the longer the wavelength .
We know that insects have an extra dopsin (light-sensitive neuro-chemical) towards the ultra-violet (mammals lost this about 100 MYA) .
The ommatidia uses these .
The hairs deform in relative air-movement , giving an indication of relative airspeed .
Infrared pattern recognition .
The downward-facing , longer hairs are used for terrain-following infrared pictures . This is why honeybees can be trained to recognize human faces (actually been done).
Infrared sensors are common in the animal kingdom , but is there a dopsin for it ?
Longer wavelengths (like microwaves , radio etc)
They can sense these , too . Twice a day (at sunrise and sunset) , a standing Electromagnetic pulse sweeps over any point on the global surface , giving another navigational indicator .
Stellar recognition .
Honeybees can see the stars in cloudless daylight . The waveguide hair acts as a narrow optical sensor , screening out the surrounding glare .
They can also see satellites and larger space debris . Better than the existing human Spacewatch .
Satelites must confuse the hell out of their navigational systems .
Magnetic fields .
A very old sensor . Sensing the Earth's magnetic field is very old . Whether this will be in the eye itself is not known .
Polarized light .
The hair(cilia) waveguides can also polarize light (like with polar bear fur) .
The honeybee can look directly at the sun with some cilia without burning out the system .
Putting it all together :
Why have such redundancy ?
The honeybee has a major problem . It has no stable platform from which to sense relative motion . This creates a major efficiency hurdle .
Land-animals assume that the ground is stable . All motion of the eyeballs are relative to this , calculated by muscle and motion sensors .
This makes possible the very efficient saccades (small rapid movements of the eyeball) , which scans and processes information about the environment . This is then stitched together in a seamless fashion in the Sensorium , using data from the nervous system .
(Hence seasickness or earthquake disequilibrium or nausea after general anaesthesia).
But the honeybee has to create it's equivalent of "solid ground" . It does this by redundancy . It always knows where it is in relation to the hive , and what it's spatial orientation is .
Instead of saccades , it moves its whole body to scan the environment .
When flying over a terrain , it builds up an infrared picture of the terrain . Not a map . (Note that the picture of a face is not a map.)
Since nature likes using the same mechanisms , it probably has the same faculty as far as stellar pictures are concerned . They can probably use constellations .
All these mechanisms has been experimentally proven to be used by single neurons in insects and humans . (Note , single neurons . Not even a cluster !)
All the other senses combine in the eye to tell the eye where it is .
The sensorium can then build up a seamless picture of what it sees .
What it is like to see like a honeybee .
It is a sequence of pictures in five colours . Like a very garish comic-book .
The sky is blue and ultraviolet (a colour humans can't see) , with white spots of the stars (even in daylight) . The sun and moon appear nearly of equal brightness (polarized light) .
The ground underneath has five primary colours
(Ultraviolet , blue , green , red , infrared).
The heat sensors(infrared) use a separate sensor and pattern-recognition network . In the sensorium this seems like a underlying "red" diffusing through the ground , with the bee's last path and the hive like "red" trails and spots .
Everything is alive with colour .
Some speculations :
1.Communicating with Honeybees .
Use garish pictures in sequence . The honeybee cannot understand narratives . It's intra-species communication dance has only a few key pictures .
Do a comic-book with referents that a bee can relate to . Simple communication can proceed from there .
But remember that the problem is the extremely rich information volume the bee is evolved for . Abstraction is not their forte .
The advantages of communicating with bees are numerous .
Better pollination , eco-warning , unequalled watch-systems , astronomy and spacewatch to name a few .
A number of hives in orbit will be an extremely powerful detection system .
Nature's astronomers .
Cheap , too.
Theoretically , sound-pictures can be recognized by using the relative-windspeed mechanism .
Translate a comicbook frame by frame using synesthesia .
3. Scents .
This can be used in the communication protocols , but I doubt whether the honeybee can see scents . The lack of stable enough referents will make neural-networks unable to learn (why synesthesia is not more popular) .
4. The Intelligence of hives .
An unsettled question .
The problem is memory .
A distributed PNA ,RNA,DNA memory is far cheaper than having a full memory in each organism . (An analogue is software for rent on the Internet compared to having to buy it for your PC.)
A language that enables a better memory might uplift them .
( "Ve haff vays of making you smarter !" )
One of the major reasons for the success of mammals are the saccades of eyeballs . This establishes a narrative at very basic neurological level , enabling memory to be stored in smaller blocks than whole pictures . Abstraction is then easier .
The honeybee system is similar to the cul-de-sac whales and orcas with sonar-type three-dimensional pictures found themselves in .
It is no surprise then to find that they are evolving into hive-like groups (eg beachings) .
The irony is that communicating with bees will probably enable us to communicate better with whales , orcas , and maybe dolphins .
5. Dirty jokes .
If you can swap dirty jokes with a honeybee over a cup of nectar , then you can make a claim to be cosmopolitan .
And so it buzzes .