To be fair, hummingbirds and bees differ. Hummingbirds have more advanced eyes and brains than bees. Olfaction, while important for bee memory, has historically been ignored in hummingbirds. Honeybees and bumblebees are social; hummingbirds typically aren’t. Bees rely solely on flowers for nectar and pollen; hummingbirds also eat insects, which may require that their brains work differently, Beth Nichols who studies bee behavior at the University of Sussex in Britain wrote in an email.
But however they perceive or process information, they both experience similar information, Dr. Pritchard said. Bees and hummingbirds approach flowers that distribute food predictably in time in space, so he and his colleagues have turned to these animals’ commonalities.
In day-to-day foraging, for instance, hummingbirds may rely on more of a bee’s-eye view than a bird’s-eye view. Like other birds, they rely on landmarks, distances and directions to make maps when migrating long distances, but they don’t use these cues to find flowers. Move a flower just an inch or so away from where a hummingbird thought it was and it will hover over the flower’s original location. Dr. Pritchard is investigating if, like bees, hummingbirds engage in view matching — hovering, scanning snapshots of a place to its memory and using those as references later.
Like bees, hummingbirds also create repeated routes between flowers during feeding, as a trapper might check traps. In the lab they learn arbitrary sequences, following one flower to the next over hundreds of trials. But they won’t do it in nature. Taking methods from bee work, however, researchers put hummingbirds in an arena of artificial flowers that refilled with nectar like flowers in the wild. Like bees that find the fastest way to nectar-rich flowers on their own, hummingbirds also found the most efficient paths, rather than following the order in which researchers had presented flowers
Ultimately, Dr. Pritchard said, advances in our understanding of an animal can come from unexpected places.
“The idea of getting inspiration from insects to study birds and mammals is something that doesn’t happen very often.”