Bees Create False Memories Like Humans

First Posted: Mar 02, 2015 07:18 AM EST

Our human memory can fail us. In fact, our brains can create false memories. Now, though, scientists have found that this phenomenon doesn't just extend to humans; bumblebees can also be unreliable witnesses and create false memories.

"We discovered that the memory traces for two stimuli can merge, such that features acquired in distinct bouts of training are combined in the animal's mind," said Lars Chittka, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Stimuli that have actually never been viewed before, but are a combination of the features presented in training, are chosen during memory recall."

Bees can remember patterns, colors and scents of various types of flowers. They also can navigate to those flowers and back home again over long distances. In previous studies, scientists believed that errors in performance in animals means that the animals failed to learn the task or perhaps learned it and then forgot. In order to see if this was the case, the researchers decided to examine memory failure in bees.

The researchers first trained bumblebees to expect a reward when visiting a solid yellow artificial flower followed by one with black-and-white rings or vice versa. During following tests, bees were given a choice between three types of flowers. Two were the yellow and the black-and-white types seen before and the third was a flower that had yellow-and-white rings, representing a mixed up version of the other two. Minutes after training, the bees showed a clear preference for the flower that most recently rewarded them. One or three days later, though, the bees grew confused and began selecting the flower with the yellow rings.

"There is no question that the ability to extract patterns and commonalities between different events in our environment [is] adaptive," said Chittka. "Indeed, the ability to memorize the overarching principles of a number of different events might help us respond to new situations. But these abilities might come at the expense of remembering every detail correctly."

The findings reveal that like humans, bees can remember things incorrectly. This reveals a bit more about memory in animals.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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