FReD helps explain how a bee sees

FReD helps explain how a bee sees

FReD helps explain how a bee sees

Researchers have developed a database that shows how colours appear to bees - News

Adapted from a news release issued by Queen Mary, University of London
Thursday 16 December 2010

Bees can see colours but they perceive the world differently to us, including variations in hue that we cannot distinguish with the naked eye.

Researchers at Imperial College London and Queen Mary, University of London have now developed FReD – the Floral Reflectance Database – to show what colours flowers appear to be, to bees. The development of the catalogue is reported this week in the journal PLoS ONE .

Previous records of flower colours have not taken the visual systems of pollinator insects into account. Bees – for example – have evolved completely different colour detection mechanisms to humans, and can see colours outside our own capabilities in the ultra-violet range. The new research highlights that the world we see is not the physical or the ‘real’ world – different animals have very different senses, depending on the environment the in which the animals operate.

Research author Professor Vincent Savolainen , from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, who holds a joint post at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew , said: "We hope this work can help biologists understand how plants have evolved in different habitats - from biodiversity hotspots in South Africa to the cold habitats of northern Europe. FReD’s global records may show how flower colour could have changed over time, and how this relates to the different insects that pollinate them, levels of UV radiation and other factors in their local environment."

The project measured the spectral reflectance of a number of flowers in different locations and analysed what bumblebees perceive, including different shades of ultra-violet. The image above shows a photograph of a creeping Zinnia (Sanvitalia procumbens) using a UV filter, giving just one example of the colours that are ’hidden’ to us.

Samia Faruq from Queen Mary, an expert in the computer modelling side of the project, said: "FReD provides over 2,000 records with the colours that the bee sees presented in a very simple way. A successful flower has to be ’noticed’ by the bee, and FReD provides a better understanding of the strategy flowers attain.

"Colour patterns emerging from the location or altitude in which flowers are found may in turn increase our understanding of the plant-pollinator relationship. We will also be able to determine if flower colours in a given location are converging or diverging in order to give themselves the best chance of reproducing."

Professor Peter McOwan, a Queen Mary computer scientist who helped in developing the technical side of the project, commented: "This combination of biology and computer science, allowing scientist to collaboratively access important data in new ways shows the power of combining these two scientific disciplines. This interdisciplinary approach can produce significant new applications that will help make a real impact in better understand the natural world."

The database is freely searchable and open for international contribution, and will inform future ecological studies. "The records can be used to link flowers together by colour, although they appear different to us. On a global scale we will be able to identify the colours preferred by pollinators and see how this varies. This is very significant in terms of the global food supply, which relies on these insects and bees in particular," added Professor Lars Chittka, who led the research at Queen Mary, University of London.