Honeybees and the Study of the Human Brain

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Bees provide us with a set of well-known benefits, namely, pollination services, honey, pollen and other products. But they are also of our utmost interest for scientific research. Not only they provide us with an accurate reading of the environment's quality, but they are also helping us understand ourselves. A new study attempts to reveal the way the human brain functions through the investigation of honeybees[1].

Why honeybees?

A honeybee colony is a superorganism, an organism that consists of many organisms to form its whole. In theory, superorganisms may react to external stimulus following the same laws the human brain does. The key to understanding how we make decisions may very well lie beyond us, into a honeybee colony.

A colony of honeybees "functions as an integrated whole and its members cannot survive on their own, yet individual honeybees are physically independent and closely resemble in physiology and morphology the solitary bees from which they evolved"[2]. Such particular trait also found in other species like ants and termites has drawn the attention of scientists, who see in it the potential to further understand our neurons and their structure.

Psychophysical Laws, understanding two worlds apart.

Psychophysics study the relation between stimulus and their sensation in the human brain. In its core, it argues that "equal stimulus ratios produce equal sensation ratios"[3]. By accepting this principle and applying it to honeybee colonies, researchers are looking at bees and their reaction as a superorganism as if it was our brain under the scope.

Three psychophysical laws that apply to the human brain have also been identified in honeybee hive decision making. It is Piéron's law, Hicks Law and Weber Law. Each one of these laws refers to stimulus' relation to decision-making.

The study has found that honeybee colonies' decision-making abides by these three laws, similar to the way the human brain does. Honeybees are faster to make a decision if both options are of high quality, as Piéron's Law states. Their decision-making is also slower as the number of options increases, as asserted by Hicks Law. Finally, researchers found that honeybees are able to choose the best quality option when there are minimal differences between two options. For example, colonies are more prone to select the best option between two different nest-sites if they have minimum differences among each other.

Interestingly, it has not been a biologist or zootechnical department who have conducted the study. Instead, it was the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield along with the Italian National Research Council. Through their research, the authors have linked superorganism processes to such that occur in the human brain. Calling upon our fascination and even our practical needs for understanding, honeybees prove to be our unintentional allies in more than one field.

[1] Reina, Andreagiovanni, et al. "Psychophysical Laws and the Superorganism." Scientific reports 8.1 (2018): 4387.

[2] Seeley, Thomas D. "The honey bee colony as a superorganism." American Scientist 77.6 (1989): 546-553.

[3] Stevens, Stanley Smith. Psychophysics: Introduction to its perceptual, neural and social prospects. Routledge, 2017.

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