AS SOCIAL creatures, the ability to recognise faces is crucial to humans. Imagine if you could not distinguish your mum from dad, or colleague from boss!
That being said, facial recognition is not the be-all and end-all of social interaction.
Many highly-social insects, such as bees and ants, have other means of telling friend from foe (or one friend from another), including through body language, pheromones, and other chemical cues. This has led many to conclude that insects are incapable of facial recognition.
Is it true, however, that bees are capable of recognising faces?
The ability to visually distinguish one individual from another is often thought to be exclusive to animals with highly developed brains – usually mammals.
This is an inaccurate assumption, as existing research shows that bees and wasps are capable of processing and recognising different faces despite their less-sophisticated neural networks.
In fact, scientists found that bees are not only capable of facial recognition, but the mechanism behind it even works the same way as it does in humans!
Humans are able to tell faces apart due to the principle of holistic processing. We piece together the individual features of a face – eyes, mouth, nose, and so on – into a unique ‘whole’, forming a recognisable pattern.
Our brain has a specific region, called the fusiform gyrus, dedicated to such visual categorisation tasks.
Despite bees and wasps lacking such specialised brains, research shows that they perform the same ‘patchworking’ of features as we do, allowing them to pick out target faces at up to 90% accuracy after being trained to do so.
According to Associate Professor Adrian Dyer of RMIT University, the insects were even able to learn black and white images of human faces.
Ethologist James Gould suggests that this may play into how bees are able to distinguish between different flowers.
However, Gould adds that while social and evolutionary reasons necessitated that humans be able to distinguish faces, for bees, "faces are just a really strange looking flower."
Still, these studies suggest that brain size and sophistication do not directly correlate with the ability to perform complex tasks. In other words, our understanding of ‘intelligence’ may be highly flawed.
You might not be able to tell individual bees apart, but the bees sure can recognise you!