Humans have known about bees for a long time: 8,000-year-old cave paintings in Bicorp, Spain, show early humans scaling trees to collect honey. But modern scientists wanted to know if bees recognize us, which is why researchers have put the insects’ microscopic brains to the test. In a 2005 study, honey bees were trained to memorize pictures of human faces by scientists who rewarded them for correct matches with droplets of sugar water. While a bee’s-eye view isn’t as clear as our own gaze, the buzzing insects were able to correctly differentiate between faces up to 90% of the time — even two days after first seeing them, and when the sweet incentives were removed.
The emerging research into bee brains shows that not all living creatures need the complex brain systems humans have in order to recognize and recall environmental differences, but some researchers say that’s not entirely shocking. The Apis mellifera (aka the European honey bee) can visit up to 5,000 flowers in one day, distinguishing between buds that give off beaucoup nectar and those that don’t. So, it makes sense that bees have some form of working memory. And unlocking how bee brains work has practical applications for both us and them: Tech developers may be able to fine-tune artificial intelligence systems (in part by understanding how such tiny brains work so efficiently), and entomologists can better focus on supporting these crucial insects — which are responsible for an estimated 80% of food crop pollination.
Most researchers agree that bees are weather-sensitive; species living in four-season environments generally appear with warming spring temperatures and disappear into their hives to wait out winter. But that doesn’t mean all bees are delicate — some pollinator species are able to withstand the colder temps of the Arctic Circle. In the short summers between rugged winters, arctic bumblebees do the heavy lifting of pollinating wildflowers and berries that other animals rely on. Bombus polaris have adapted to the unforgiving climates of northern Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, and elsewhere with thicker fur and the ability to shiver their muscles to raise internal temperatures, but they also have shorter life spans than bees in warmer regions. Queen arctic bumblebees emerge from a nine-month solitary hibernation in May with one task in mind: quickly laying eggs to jump-start a colony that will only live a few months, save for one new queen — who will replace her in August to start the process all over again.