Memories aren’t infallible – even for those with photographic memory – so, more often than not, they’ll seem fuzzy. And the older these get, the fuzzier they’re recalled. Mixing names, faces and events in your head can sometimes be embarrassing, but at least we’re not alone. Seems like bees have false memories too, according to a study made by British researchers at Queen Mary University of London. Previously, false memories had been induced in other animals, like mice, but this is the first time natural false memories have been shown to happen. Research like this might help us, in time, understand how false memories are formed and, in a more general sense, how we recall events.

honeybee

Image: JOSEPH BERGER/BUGWOOD.ORG

Honeybees and bumblebees rely on scent, taste and colour to find food (nectar), so they map this sensory information for later use. The researchers trained bees (Bombus terrestris) to go after two types of reward-bearing flowers: solid yellow ones and a variety which flashed rings of black and white. They then introduced other varieties of flowers. 

In the first three days the bees preferred the most recently rewarded stimulus. Later on, however, the bees went for a hybrid made of yellow and white concentric circles. Just 34 percent preferred the merged blooms during the first ten trials, but 50 percent did during the last ten. According to the researchers at the QMUL Bee Sensory and Behavioral Lab, this is indicative of false memory formation. Strikingly, this matches a pattern reminiscent of how humans recall false information. Right after training or shortly after reading an article, for instance, people will rather accurately remember what was it all about. Ask them to perform the task two week later and things will get fuzzy. As such, it’s a matter of long term memory storage and retrieval. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a sign of how flexible our memory is.

“There is no question that the ability to extract patterns and commonalities between different events in our environment [is] adaptive,” Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London says in a press release. “Indeed, the ability to memorize the overarching principles of a number of different events might help us respond in new situations. But these abilities might come at the expense of remembering every detail correctly.”

Findings appeared in Current Biology.

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