Comparative psychophysics of bumblebee and honeybee colour discrimination and object detection

J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2008 Jul;194(7):617-27. doi: 10.1007/s00359-008-0335-1. Epub 2008 Apr 25.


Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) discrimination of targets with broadband reflectance spectra was tested using simultaneous viewing conditions, enabling an accurate determination of the perceptual limit of colour discrimination excluding confounds from memory coding (experiment 1). The level of colour discrimination in bumblebees, and honeybees (Apis mellifera) (based upon previous observations), exceeds predictions of models considering receptor noise in the honeybee. Bumblebee and honeybee photoreceptors are similar in spectral shape and spacing, but bumblebees exhibit significantly poorer colour discrimination in behavioural tests, suggesting possible differences in spatial or temporal signal processing. Detection of stimuli in a Y-maze was evaluated for bumblebees (experiment 2) and honeybees (experiment 3). Honeybees detected stimuli containing both green-receptor-contrast and colour contrast at a visual angle of approximately 5 degrees , whilst stimuli that contained only colour contrast were only detected at a visual angle of 15 degrees . Bumblebees were able to detect these stimuli at a visual angle of 2.3 degrees and 2.7 degrees , respectively. A comparison of the experiments suggests a tradeoff between colour discrimination and colour detection in these two species, limited by the need to pool colour signals to overcome receptor noise. We discuss the colour processing differences and possible adaptations to specific ecological habitats.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / classification
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Color*
  • Discrimination, Psychological*
  • Maze Learning / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psychophysics / methods
  • Statistics, Nonparametric