Background: Some bees and wasps have evolved nocturnal behavior, presumably to exploit night-flowering plants or avoid predators. Like their day-active relatives, they have apposition compound eyes, a design usually found in diurnal insects. The insensitive optics of apposition eyes are not well suited for nocturnal vision. How well then do nocturnal bees and wasps see? What optical and neural adaptations have they evolved for nocturnal vision?
Results: We studied female tropical nocturnal sweat bees (Megalopta genalis) and discovered that they are able to learn landmarks around their nest entrance prior to nocturnal foraging trips and to use them to locate the nest upon return. The morphology and optics of the eye, and the physiological properties of the photoreceptors, have evolved to give Megalopta's eyes almost 30 times greater sensitivity to light than the eyes of diurnal worker honeybees, but this alone does not explain their nocturnal visual behavior. This implies that sensitivity is improved by a strategy of photon summation in time and in space, the latter of which requires the presence of specialized cells that laterally connect ommatidia into groups. First-order interneurons, with significantly wider lateral branching than those found in diurnal bees, have been identified in the first optic ganglion (the lamina ganglionaris) of Megalopta's optic lobe. We believe that these cells have the potential to mediate spatial summation.
Conclusions: Despite the scarcity of photons, Megalopta is able to visually orient to landmarks at night in a dark forest understory, an ability permitted by unusually sensitive apposition eyes and neural photon summation.