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SEEING IN THE DARK

October 20, 2014

SEEING IN THE DARK

It’s 4 a.m. and Julia Schuckel deftly drives a 4x4 to a favorite spot on a muddy and pool-filled Pipeline Road in Panama’s Soberania National Park

It’s 4 a.m. and Julia Schuckel deftly drives a 4x4 to a favorite spot on a muddy and pool-filled Pipeline Road in Panama’s Soberania National Park. She strings up a white sheet between two trees and cranks up a generator that powers a light bulb. Countless insects buzz to the sheet. The sweat bee Megalopta genalis picks up the light, as well. By daybreak, the postdoc from Sweden’s Lund University has a handful of bees to test in the lab.

For a nocturnal bee, M. genalis is an enigma. Its eyes are built like diurnal bees. Yet studies show it relies on eyesight to leave and return to its nest in near-complete darkness. “They have too little light, in theory, to do this,” said Schuckel.

Schuckel likens M. genalis vision to a camera. The bee’s dayvision eye photoreceptors only receive light through one lens. Night-vision creatures capture light through many lenses, greatly improving the information received by their photoreceptors. M. genalis has found a workaround and Schuckel plans to find out what it is.

The bee may neuraly pools light in the brain, either spatially or temporally — like a long-exposure photograph or a wide shutter opening to capture enough light to create an image. This would allow the insect to see a much brighter world, “albeit a coarser or slower one,” said Schuckel.

Schuckel uses electrodes to create heat maps of M. genalis visual receptive fields, measured at the photoreceptor and the lamina, the first optical neuropil in the bee’s brain — the cells that might be ultimately explain this bee’s amazing vision.

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