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If I recall correctly, the bee was associated in ancient Egypt with initiation, mysteries, sacred inspiration (in addition to being an emblem of the Pharaoh, of the union of Upper and Lower Egypt, etc.).

DSCN6634One of my favourite hobbies: reading outdoors on a warm Sunday

Early September of last year we had some gorgeous weather here in Lausanne. So I made use of this fine weather to do some reading on the balcony in the evenings or at the weekends. On the second Sunday of September, while reading some newspapers on the balcony, I noticed a honeybee that was flying behind my chair. As I could not recall having seen any honeybees during summer, my eyes left the salmon coloured pages of a famous English business newspaper to follow this tiny visitor that was flying around the ‘vast expanses’* of our balcony.

Honeybee at work-Lausanne-Vennes-7 September 2014This insect’s unremitting, but graceful efforts at extracting nectar from the French marigolds close to our balcony’s railing had certainly caught my attention, so that I spent quite some time observing this diligent worker, something I had not done for many, many years. Even though I am no bee aficionado (but if I were to live in the countryside I might become one, just like one of my uncles in Italy was), I certainly hold these little creatures in high esteem and I am concerned about the growing evidence that bees are disappearing in very large numbers because of the pesticides used in non-organic farming. In fact, this single honeybee made me realise that this decline in the number of bees which is sometimes being reported in the press (yes, at times journalists do write about issues which are crucial to our survival as a species, but such articles tend to be relegated to the least visible sections of newspapers, whether online or in paper format) had occurred right before our eyes, given that over a period of only three years we had noticed a steep drop in the numbers of bees on our balcony (but, needless to say, we do not use any non-organic pesticides)…

Les abeilles savent compter_Tribune de Genève_19 mars 2015‘Bees can count’, Tribune de Genève, 19 March 2015

Yesterday evening as I was looking up information on the solar eclipse we would be having this morning, I stumbled across a headline/lead-in sentence that got me to click on the hyperlink leading to the article: ‘Bees can count. The world of bees is fascinating: a French scientist has discovered that bees are not only able to count but also recognise a human face.’ This short article (a little over 550 words) in a daily which targets the general public is almost as much an article on the extraordinary abilities of the honeybee as it is on the French scientist to whom the journalist misattributes the discovery of the honeybee’s numerical ability. In fact, the article was published a day after the scientist, Aurore Avarguès-Weber, had been officially awarded a grant (International Rising Talent Grants 2015) in Paris as part of a programme run by L’Oréal-UNESCO to promote the achievements of women scientists (Women in Science awards).

The article cites Mrs Avarguès-Weber’s claim that the bees can learn really fast, faster than primates (baboons, capuchins, rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees): ‘results can be observed much faster than with primates’. It also presents the main question mark the French scientist harbours over the ‘bees’ impressive capacity to extract specific features when explicitly trained to do so’**: is it because the honeybee can process information better than humans or is it because every single neuron they have (a million versus 100 billion for humans) can be used to undertake several tasks at a time? Mrs Avarguès-Weber hopes that her next experiment (in which she will be monitoring the brain activity of bees in an artificial, simulator-based environment) will bring her closer to an answer.

Given that the concluding paragraph of the research paper of Mrs Avarguès-Weber et al** contains words such as ‘circuits’, ‘computational resources’ and ‘artificial neural networks’, one can bet that artificial intelligence to power robotics is the field of application scientists working in animal cognition must be thinking of putting their findings to use – which I am sure the military would only be too happy to fund and then recuperate***. However, as China’s failed attempt at pollination by human hand demonstrates, humans are not always able to have it their way. After all, the honeybee is an incredible insect, which probably evolved over thousands and thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of years, i.e. it must have found the time to develop into a near perfect bee, no?

* This figure of speech is called poetic licence. 😉

** A quote I have extracted from her most recent research paper, entitled ‘The forest or the trees: preference for global over local image processing is reversed by prior experience in honeybees

*** Somehow it reminds me of this clip I saw on the BBC two years ago, entitled ‘Black Hornet spycam is a “lifesaver” for British troops/A British soldier demonstrates how the Norwegian-designed Black Hornet Nano will be used for surveillance in Afghanistan.’, BBC, 13 February 2013


This video (in French unfortunately) lends support to my point about the drones; incidentally, I watched it only after having written my entry…