Bees learn to recognise particular bushes, trees and flowers, according to scientists who say these insects are surprisingly sophisticated at navigating their natural environment.

The research, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, shows that bee behaviour is not hard-wired as once believed.

Lead author Dr Adrian Dyer, an Australian vision researcher from Monash University in Melbourne, says bees can learn new tasks, despite their tiny brain size.

"This gives us a real insight into how neurones work and how neurones can interact and learn how to solve tasks," he said.

The research shows that bee behaviour is not hard-wired as once believed

Dr Dyer and his team conducted two experiments using photographs of trees to train the bees to recognise complex images as part of their daily chores.

"We devised an experiment which tackles a problem bees have to solve in their normal daily life. Bees have to fly in fairly complex environments like forests and use a variety of visual information to find flowers and return to their hives," he said.

"The question was to see if they could do the very fine discrimination tasks and we were reasonably surprised they were very, very good at it."

Bee school

In the first experiment the bees were trained to recognise one photo of a tree by drinking a nectar reward when they flew to it.

The bees were encouraged to avoid another photo of a tree by being given bitter tasting quinine when they flew to it.

The sucrose and quinine were taken away after 120 visits and the researchers found the bees still flew to the image they had been trained to recognise and avoided the other, even when the images were swapped around.

The researchers ran a second experiment to ensure the research was ecologically valid.

This time there were 40 training sessions and the quinine was replaced with water. Again, the bees were trained to recognise one tree and avoid the other.

Natural foraging

Although the bees in the first experiment were better at recognising the image, those in the shorter training group were able to complete the task in a time frame that is more relevant to their natural foraging.

Dr Dyer says this research suggests that bees can learn to recognise a particular bush, tree or flower.

"Bees which had been conditioned to the stimuli became very good at recognising it, which is quite exciting."