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The matrix as object

The Bee Matrix is a 1-metre cube made of Plexiglas containing, mounted in rows on one side, 64 illuminated Plexiglas discs, or ‘flowers’. The discs also have tubes in the centre that can be filled with sugar water (i.e. nectar) in order to attract the bees. In this way, the arena functions as a virtual meadow of artificial flowers in which bumblebees can forage.

In order to test the bumblebees’ ability to recognise flower colours under different colours of light, each ‘flower’ can be altered in colour, so that a huge number of colour options and patterns can be created. When a bee is in the matrix, only one flower type contains nectar, and the bee has to figure out which flower that is, under a number of different circumstances of varying difficulty, set by our researchers.

Bumblebees not only thrive within this enclosed environment, but because their whole history of visual experience and flight behaviour can be completely controlled, we can compare the behaviour and physiology of bees from different environments under laboratory conditions, and also fully quantify the relationship between visual ecology and behaviour in a way that is not possible with most other animals – especially humans.

During any experiment, the flight of the bee can be tracked using a customized two-camera system with an accuracy of 1mm.

The matrix – as science

The Bee Matrix is an important scientific instrument which was developed in the first instance to address basic questions about how bumblebees – and by extension humans – see colour, specifically showing the relationship (or rather lack of it) between light and a bumblebee's/our perception of light, i.e. colour. More than that, however, the point of the matrix is to explicitly show the role of history in shaping behaviour, and thus the fundamental relationship between mind and ecology.

By tracking the flight of the bumblebee in the matrix, we can gather important information about how they learn to see in varying conditions. And it is possible to relate this to our own experience. Which is that we first explore randomly by trial-by-error. We then become more confident, but remain indecisive. Finally, as our expertise grows, we become more direct and efficient in what we do – but often at the expense of being blind to opportunity and difference. Adults typically hate uncertainty and therefore strive for efficiency and expertise. The most critical point for true creativity and choice, however, is at that point of indecision, of uncertainty, since only at that point do we combine knowledge of what is with the imagination of what could be.

The matrix as exhibit

The matrix has been exhibited as a living installation, and live experiment, at several galleries and museums. Any data captured during an exhibition is put to good use in scientific papers and may even inspire new experiments.

Hayward Gallery on the South Bank in London (2006)
World Museum in Liverpool (2007)
Science Gallery in Dublin (Flight of the bumblebee, Lightwave Exhibition, 2008)
Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (Pestival, 2009)
Wellcome Collection, London, (Seeing Myself See, 2010)

Please contact Beau Lottoif you would like to find out more about the possibility of exhibiting the Bee Matrix..

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Click on image for slideshow.

Related reserach

Learning flight pathIn this video you see a bee learning to distinguish rewarding flower colours from unrewarding flowers. As you will see, initially her flight is random as she searches from flower to flower.

Learned flight pathIn this video you see the same bee as in ?Learning? after only 6 minutes of experience. Notice how she flies straight out of the hive and almost immediately lands on a rewarding flower and in doing so obtains a sugar reward.

Crystal bee cubes

For the Flight of the Bumblebee exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin, the flightpaths of individual bees were etched into large crystal glass blocks, and the blocks staked into five 2-metre towers. Each tower represented two minutes in the learning history of the same bee, which means that what viewers were really seeing was the process by which we all learn to behave in the face of similar perceptual challenges.

See also

Flight of the bumblebee: the Dublin exhibition More
Crystal cubes and towers: for sales More