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Bumblebees have swift color vision, enabling them to buzz around at top speed while taking everything in.
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updated 3/26/2010 11:28:51 AM ET 2010-03-26T15:28:51

There's a reason why bees can see you while you're still searching for the source of that buzzing noise: Their color vision is five times faster than human vision and among the fastest color vision yet clocked in the animal world.

The lightning-fast color vision enables bees to zip through bushes and trees, escape predators, spot each other and otherwise deal with their world in fast forward. The trick to their fast vision is how many "snap shots" per second the color-detecting cells in bumblebees' eyes take and send to their brains.

"The limiting factor is how fast the photo receptors can register a change," explained bee vision researcher Peter Skorupski of Queen Mary, University of London. "So we measured the speed directly from the receptor." In a human eye the receptors are the cells in the retina at the back of the eye.

"When we see something it seems instantaneous," said Skorupski. "But there's a lot of processing going on under the bonnet. In our case there can be a delay of tenth of a second before you register what you are seeing."

The fastest vision known belongs to flies, but that is not color vision, Skorupski explained.

"A lot of this has been worked out in flies. Our work was inspired by classic work on flies. That work focused also on finding the connection between the speed of fly vision to the cost of having such amped-up sight, Skorupski explained.

What he and his colleague Lars Chittka wanted to know is whether there was a similar relationship between color vision and the energy used by bees. In other words, do bees have fast color vision and if so, do bees pay a price for the revved-up technicolors.

The first step was to measure the bee color vision speed, which they have done and published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Their bee experiments show that the color receptors of bumbles were still slower than the colorless, or achromatic, receptors of bees. But, on the other hand, they are faster than human color vision.

The finding is a solid piece of research that adds to other vision studies on toads, moths and other animals with a variety of faster, slower or just more sensitive vision that humans, explained vision researcher Fain Gordon of the University of California at Los Angeles.

"There is no doubt that color is important in bees' lives," Skorupski said. "Flying through dappled foliage, with rapidly changing lighting conditions, they are very good at learning colors and using color cues to recognize their hives."

The next step, said Skorupski, will be to evaluate the cost to the bees — in terms of energy they consume.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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