Do honeybees have a sense of imagination?

June 25th, 2008 - 2:00 pm ICT by ANI  

London, June 25 (ANI): New research conducted by researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has sparked a debate on whether the findings of the two decades old ‘lake experiment’ suggesting that honeybees have a sense of imagination were correct.

The lake experiment, conducted by Princeton University researchers Fred Dyer and James Gould in New Jersey, suggested that honeybees carry around mental maps of their environment, and use them to make judgments about whether a food source is likely to be where a fellow bee says it is.

The study has never been formally published in a peer-reviewed journal, but still it has been cited in many essays and books as evidence that honeybees possess cognitive abilities that enable them to form mental maps, and even develop a kind of intuition.

During that study, the researcher forager bees to recognize a food source on a boat in the middle of a lake. After they returned to their hive to communicate their find, the researchers examined whether the new recruits were willing to follow directions led them to the middle of a lake.

The recruits were found not to take the bait, and it was suggested that they had compared information from the waggle dance with their own mental maps of the local terrain, and decided that the waggle dance was wrong.

“Experiments suggest that recruits, having attended a dance in the hive specifying the distance and direction of a food source, can evaluate the ‘plausibility’ of the location without leaving the hive. This suggests a kind of imagination,” wrote Gould in a 1990 review on honeybee cognition.

Cornell researcher Margaret Wray, however, says that when her team repeated the lake experiment, the recruits blithely followed foragers’ directions, and journeyed to the lake just as often as they followed directions to a more plausible location located an equal distance away.

“They weren’t making a distinction,” Nature magazine quoted her as saying.

She clarified that her study did not overthrow the idea that honeybees kept a mental map of their surroundings, but challenged the idea that honeybees have a sense of imagination.

(The original study) wasn’t actually published, and people will admit that the results were not necessarily conclusive. But it just sort of took on a life of its own. People said if bees can imagine their surroundings then perhaps they have imagination and then perhaps they have consciousness, said Wray.

However, honeybee researcher Jurgen Tautz of the Julius Maximilian University of Wurzburg in Germany said that the scented food sources used in Wray’s experiments might have raised a potential problem.

According to him, bees can smell food from kilometres away if the wind is right, whereas their ability to see the food is limited to only a few metres. This, he says, suggests that a strong scent could negate the need to follow a dance at all.

Gould, who is conducting fieldwork in Bermuda was unavailable for comment. (ANI)

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