Bumblebees learn polarization patterns

James J. Foster, Camilla R. Sharkey, Alicia V.A. Gaworska, Nicholas W. Roberts, Heather M. Whitney, Julian C. Partridge

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Foraging insect pollinators such as bees must find and identify flowers in a complex visual environment. Bees use skylight polarization patterns for navigation [1-3], a capacity mediated by the polarization-sensitive dorsal rim area (DRA) of their eye [4, 5]. While other insects use polarization sensitivity to identify appropriate habitats [6], oviposition sites, and food sources [7], to date no nonnavigational functions of polarization vision have been identified in bees. Here we investigated the ability of bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) to learn polarization patterns on artificial "flowers" in order to obtain a food reward. We show that foraging bumblebees can learn to discriminate between two differently polarized targets, but only when the target artificial "flower" is viewed from below. A context for these results is provided by polarization imaging of bee-pollinated flowers, revealing the potential for polarization patterns in real flowers. Bees may therefore have the ability to use polarization vision, possibly mediated by their polarization-sensitive DRA, both for navigation and to learn polarization patterns on flowers, the latter being the first nonnavigational function for bee polarization vision to be identified.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1415-1420
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 16 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank I. Cuthill for statistical advice and R. Woodfield, W. Amos, and J. Ruśčić for assistance with experiments. We are grateful for funding from BBSRC grants BB/H01635X/1 (to N.W.R. and J.C.P.) and BB/G022917/1 (to N.W.R.) and from ERC project number 260920 (to H.M.W.).


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