Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The ability to recognize objects across different senses is an important part of the human brain's ability to produce mental images of the world and sustain conscious awareness.
It turns out, insects and their tiny brains have the same ability.
According to a new study, published Friday in the journal Science, bumblebees can learn about an object using one sense and recognize it later using another.
In the lab, scientists trained the bumblebees to distinguish between cubes and spheres without being able to touch the objects. Scientists used sugar water as a reward for the correct selection, while those that chose the wrong shape got a bitter quinine solution.
The initial training sessions were lit, allowing the bees to use their vision. During followup tests, researchers cut the lights and forced the bees to make their selections in the dark. The bumblebees were allowed to spend as much time with the objects as they wanted, and this time, they weren't prevented from touching the objects.
Bees that learned to associate squares with sugar water returned to the square when forced to navigate only by feel. Likewise, bees that got their sugar water from spheres felt their way to the spheres in the dark.
When scientists repeated the experiments in reverse, training bees in the dark and repeating the experiment in the light, they got the same results.
The findings suggest the ability known as cross-modal recognition is shared by humans and insects.
"The results of our study show that bumblebees don't process their senses as separate channels -- they come together as some sort of unified representation," said lead study author Cwyn Solvi, who conducted the research while at Queen Mary University of London but is now at Macquarie University in Australia.
"We've long known that bees can remember the shapes of flowers," said study co-author Lars Chittka, head of the lab at Queen Mary University of London. "But a smartphone can recognize your face, for example, and does so without any form of awareness. Our new work indicates that something is going on inside the mind of bees that is wholly different from a machine -- that bees can conjure up mental images of shapes."
The study's authors suggest future studies of the neural circuitry underlying the bee's cross-modal recognition could help scientists better understand how the human brain produces mental images of the world.