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Is Bee Vision the Answer to All Our Digital Camera Woes?

The digital camera is about to get some help from our friendly friend, the honeybee.

Lately, the bee has been making headlines all across the world as honeybee populations disappear, putting a majority of our favorite foods at risk. In 2014 there were an estimated 2.7 million honeybee colonies in the United States, but this number shrinks year after year. However, bees are in the news once again, but this time for something a bit more positive.
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Now that summer has arrived, we’re sure that you’ve noticed bees swarming all over the place and doing their thing. It seems that we can see bees buzzing wherever plants grow.

But now the question is: can the bees see you?

That’s what scientists have been trying to figure out, and a new study by a group of researchers in Australia has set out to answer this question.

Bees have three extra eyes on the top of their head, known as ocelii, that sense the color of ambient light via strong color receptors. This means that a bee’s color perception is consistent no matter the time of day or amount of sunlight hitting the object. Compare this to humans, who perceive colors differently at night. Ever think those navy pants were black? Yeah, us too.

It is this exact consistency in color perception that has inspired engineers and scientists alike. They believe that if we can adequately figure out how bees see the world, we would eliminate some common problems with color vision in digital cameras.

For years, digital camera manufacturers have struggled to build a camera that effectively differentiates between night and day when the camera snaps a picture.

Think of it this way: have you ever taken a picture in the same spot during the day and during the night? Chances are the picture taken in the dark looks different than the one during the day: the colors are muted, the object in the foreground is almost too bright, and it is hard to measure the distance between objects. It is this exact problem that engineers are looking to fix, and they’re hoping that bee vision can help them out.

The idea is to replicate how bee vision works. The evolution of technology, particularly nanotechnology, has allowed scientists to mimic the incredibly complex biological structures found in nature, like the color receptors found in honeybees. For instance, the transistor, an essential component in virtually all modern electronics, can now be made so small they’re invisible to the human eye. In fact, some experts believe transistors will continue shrinking until they reach a single nanometer in size — that’s equivalent to just 10 atoms!

Dr. Jair Garcia, from Austrialia’s Melbourne RMIT University, and lead scientist on the bee vision project explains to Tech Radar that the bee’s ocelli can hold vital clues into how we can program cameras to see light and color. He said:

“Physics suggests the ocelli sensing of the color of light could allow a brain to discount the naturally colored illumination which would otherwise confuse color perception. But for this to be true the information from the ocelli would have to be integrated with colors seen by the compound eyes.”

With these findings in mind, the researchers believe the potential for digital cameras, robots, and even drones to use the ocelli-like sensors to judge ambient light conditions is huge. The best part about the finding is that they believe it wouldn’t be too costly to do so, either.

The findings of this Australian study have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.