The competitive and dangerous world of the tropical rainforest has driven many normally day-active animals to adopt a nocturnal lifestyle, with the cover of darkness allowing them to exploit food resources in relative peace. Several groups of bees and wasps--including the Central American halictid bee Megalopta genalis--have become nocturnal, and despite the darkness and their apparently insensitive compound eyes, they have retained remarkable visual abilities. In the new work, performed on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, the researchers used infrared night-imaging cameras to show that by performing special orientation flights, Megalopta visually learns landmarks around the nest entrance prior to foraging and uses these landmarks to locate the nest upon return. The researchers found that if landmarks were moved to a nearby site while the bee was away, upon her return she intently searched for her nest in the landmark-bearing, but wrong, location.
Despite this impressive behavioral sensitivity, optical and physiological measurements revealed that Megalopta's eyes are only about 30 times more sensitive to light than those of day-active honeybees, woefully inadequate to account for Megalopta's nocturnal homing abilities. A solution to this paradox may lie outside the eye. The researchers found that specialized visual cells in the bee's brain had morphologies suited to summing light signals and intensifying the received image.