Biological significance of distinguishing between similar colours in spectrally variable illumination: bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) as a case study

J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2004 Feb;190(2):105-14. doi: 10.1007/s00359-003-0475-2. Epub 2003 Dec 3.


Individual bumblebees were trained to choose between rewarded target flowers and non-rewarded distractor flowers in a controlled illumination laboratory. Bees learnt to discriminate similar colours, but with smaller colour distances the frequency of errors increased. This indicates that pollen transfer might occur between flowers with similar colours, even if these colours are distinguishable. The effect of similar colours on reducing foraging accuracy of bees is evident for colour distances high above discrimination threshold, which explains previous field observations showing that bees do not exhibit complete flower constancy unless flower colour between species is distinct. Bees tested in spectrally different illumination conditions experienced a significant decrease in their ability to discriminate between similar colours. The extent to which this happens differs in different areas of colour space, which is consistent with a von Kries-type model of colour constancy. We find that it would be beneficial for plant species to have highly distinctive colour signals to overcome limitations on the bees performance in reliably judging differences between similar colours. An exception to this finding was flowers that varied in shape, in which case bees used this cue to compensate for inaccuracies of colour vision.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Color*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology
  • Lighting / methods
  • Photic Stimulation / methods*