The beleaguered honey bee is normally championed for its vital powers of pollination, but a new study shows that we could soon be thanking them for inspiring more accurate colour imaging in digital photography.
It's no secret that bees have been having a really rough time. Just yesterday, the rusty-patched bumble became the first bee in the continental United States officially listed under the Endangered Species Act. But that's the tip of the iceberg for our buzzy little friends, who unlike their arsehole cousins — wasps — only want to pollinate plants with their fuzzy little bodies. Sadly, the best bees, honey bees (Apis mellifera L.), are dealing with yet another threat to their existence, while wasps just sit back and watch the world burn.
A group of researchers published the results of their investigation into how bees perceive colour today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Their findings call into question previous assumptions about bees' perception and they claim that this research could be integrated into cameras to produce a better representation of natural light.
In the past, scientists have questioned how it is that a honey bee can recognise the same colours on a flower that it has already visited, even though the ambient light is constantly changing. The accepted solution was that like humans, bees have the capacity for chromatic adaptation. Even if a red object is illuminated by green light, it is still understood to be red. A theorem called the Von Kries transform gave us a mathematical basis for this idea and it was applied to camera technology to maintain colour constancy. If you use a crappy digital camera, colours will look unnatural. But a camera with high-quality sensors and white balance options gives us an image that's closer to what we perceive with our own eyes.
What this new research suggests is that bees have a different way of processing colours than we previously believed. Bees have two main compound eyes that directly observe the flowers they're targeting. But on top of their head, they have three ocelli pointed at the sky. Each ocelli has two colour receptors that sense ambient light. In a press release, lead author Dr Jair Garcia explains:
Physics suggests the ocelli sensing of the colour of light could allow a brain to discount the naturally coloured illumination which would otherwise confuse colour perception. But for this to be true the information from the ocelli would have to be integrated with colours seen by the compound eyes.
The neural tracings of the ocelli were mapped and it was found that the neural projection was being directed to the colour processing areas of the bee's brain. The scientists reasoned that parallel visual pathways were feeding into the higher-order visual processing centres of the bee's brain. When mathematical models of their hypothesis were compared to observed behaviour, they concluded that they were correct.
Adrian Dyer, one of the coordinators of the research, says, "this discovery on colour constancy can be implemented into imaging systems to enable accurate colour interpretation." High hopes are had for an integration of these computational models into drones, cameras and robots in order to create better colour constancy in outdoor settings.
Now that killer drones could be improved thanks to the honey bee, can we get some more government support for saving these guys?