Honeybees (Apis mellifera) have remarkable visual learning and discrimination abilities that extend beyond learning simple colours, shapes or patterns. They can discriminate landscape scenes, types of flowers, and even human faces. This suggests that in spite of their small brain, honeybees have a highly developed capacity for processing complex visual information, comparable in many respects to vertebrates. Here, we investigated whether this capacity extends to complex images that humans distinguish on the basis of artistic style: Impressionist paintings by Monet and Cubist paintings by Picasso. We show that honeybees learned to simultaneously discriminate between five different Monet and Picasso paintings, and that they do not rely on luminance, colour, or spatial frequency information for discrimination. When presented with novel paintings of the same style, the bees even demonstrated some ability to generalize. This suggests that honeybees are able to discriminate Monet paintings from Picasso ones by extracting and learning the characteristic visual information inherent in each painting style. Our study further suggests that discrimination of artistic styles is not a higher cognitive function that is unique to humans, but simply due to the capacity of animals—from insects to humans—to extract and categorize the visual characteristics of complex images.
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We thank Chin Y. J. Yuen for help with the experiments, and Adrian Dyer and Allen Cheung for advice on the image analyses. W.W. was funded through an Australian Postgraduate Award by the Australian Government and an Australian Research Council Discovery grant to JT (DP0985830). A.M.M. was funded by a FAPESP doctorate scholarship (08/50576-8), Brazil.
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