Day after day, honeybees are able to travel back and forth between a food source and their hive, even in a constantly-changing environment. Given that the insects have relatively small brains, scientists have determined that they rely chiefly on vision and hard-wired visual processing abilities to achieve such a feat. To better understand that process, scientists from the Cognitive Interaction Technology Center of Excellence at Bielefeld University, Germany, have created an artificial honeybee’s eye. Using the device, they hope to unlock the secrets of the insects’ sensing, processing and navigational skills, and apply them to human technology such as micro air vehicles (MAVs).

The artificial bee’s eye consists of a light-weight acrylic glass mirror-lens combination, hooked up to a USB video camera. Although the scientists refer to it as a singular eye, because it incorporates a single camera, it actually approximates a honeybee’s full dual-eyed 280-degree field of vision.

To achieve this, the underside of the lens surface is covered by a reflective upside down dome – that is, the convex outside of the dome, which faces towards the camera, is reflective. The center of the recorded image is obtained directly through the lens glass via a peep hole in the middle of the dome. The outsides of the image, however, come from the reflective dome surface surrounding that hole, which lets the camera “see” what’s off to either side (the device’s globe-shaped housing is transparent on the sides). Using a mapping routine, the two fields of view are digitally blended into one.

Previous attempts at simulating bees' eyesight have lacked the ability to focus in on objects at close range, or have utilized dual cameras, which would make them too heavy for use in MAVs.

Of course, given that a bee wouldn’t be able to tell the scientists if they’d actually gotten everything right, we just have to assume that they at least came close... and the researchers do admit that there are some parts of their system that might not be quite accurate. That said, they did base their design on previous research that involved rotating a microscope around a bee’s head while illuminating its eyes from inside to ascertain the relative angles of the facets of its compound eyes.

The scientists now plan on making the system even more bee-like by allowing it to display UV light, which bees are able to see. Further down the line, they also hope to incorporate a simulation of the bees’ subsequent neural processing stages.

A report outlining the Bielefeld team’s findings was published this Friday in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.