Rudolf Jander, Kansas University biology professor, poses a challenge: In a large forest, find a tree with a hole in it. Then walk away from the tree, about five miles. Now, turn around, go back and find the same tree.
That's probably impossible for a human, Jander said.
But it's a no-brainer for a honeybee.
"They have a fantastic ability to find their way around," Jander said.
For the last four summers, Jander has advised Danny Najera, a doctoral student in entomology, as Najera has led research on the intelligence of honeybees.
With the help of other undergraduate and graduate students, Najera conducts experiments in the fields and trees of KU's West Campus to explore bees' abilities to find food and navigate.
"We're all out here all day, every day, trying to figure out how smart these bees are," Najera said. This is his final summer of bee research. He hopes to complete his doctoral work in the spring.
One of the intelligence experiments centers on the bees' ability to recognize patterns in order to help them find food.
On four tables placed to form a rectangle about 15 feet by 30 feet, the students put three jars of plain water and one jar of sugar water. Every 10 minutes, they move the sugar jar to another table in a figure-eight pattern, while the bees make trips between their hive and the jars to find food.
After about a week of observing this routine for eight hours a day, the bees begin to recognize the pattern. Once they find that the sugar jar is gone from a particular table, most of them know which table to check next - even if it means going to the table that is farthest away. To track the bees' behavior, researchers mark certain bees with paint.
"What it boils down to is an incredible ability to forage," Najera said. Bees' efficiency in finding and obtaining food means that humans can exploit their honey production at little cost, he said.
Other experiments examine the bees' abilities to find their way back to their hive, recognize and remember certain locations, and find a shortcut between two locations.
"Their spatial intelligence appears to be a lot better than humans'," Najera said.
Bees can venture up to about six miles from their hive and still find their way back, Jander said. To remember a location or a travel route, they use sight, smell and a sense of time.
"This is an interesting logical process that takes place in a tiny brain of 1 cubic millimeter," Jander said.
That tiny brain contains about 1 million nerve cells, Najera said - or about the same number humans have in the back of each eye. He said the intelligence that bees packed into such a small system helped biologists learn about the workings of brains and cognition in general.
For instance, bees' intelligence disproves any notion that the number of nerve cells in a brain system may be directly related to intelligence, he said.
Najera said only two other groups - one in Michigan and one in Germany - were doing similar research about individual bee intelligence. He said most honeybee intelligence research had concerned their use of "dance language," which is the flying patterns they use to communicate.
Jander said one of his advisers in Germany, his birthplace, first discovered bees' dance language. Jander published his first paper on honeybee research 50 years ago in Germany. He also has studied intelligence in ants and mice.
Jander laughed as he spoke about the obvious hazard of honeybee research, admitting he'd been stung countless times, but never by more than 10 or 15 bees at once.
"It's always painful," he said.
But he explained the secret to avoiding stings from aggressive bees: Back away slowly, and avoid swatting or making sudden movements. It works for Jander and his students - at least most of the time.