Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' are the bee's knees in the insect world

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The Independent Online

Now another, more colourful group of admirers can be added to his fans: bumblebees.

According to a scientific study, a selection of bumblebees alighted on the Dutch master's Sunflowers at the expense of other equally vivid pictures.

Second place in the great apian art test went to the only other floral picture shown, Gauguin's A Vase of Flowers.

But the scientists have an answer to the observation that the bees were merely alighting on pictures of nectar-rich plants. The bumblebees were not working from memory: they were laboratory specimens that had never seen a real flower.

A team of "behavioural ecologists" from Queen Mary College, London University, conducted the series of unusual tests in an attempt to explore the relationship between art and biology. Four reproductions of paintings were laid out on the bees' flight path - the Van Gogh, the Gauguin and two more modern works: Still Life With A Beer Mug by the French Cubist Fernand Leger, and Pottery by Patrick Caulfield, the English pop-artist.

Researchers recorded how many times the bumblebees approached and landed on each picture.

Sunflowers, one of the series Van Gogh painted in 1888 while renting the Yellow House in Arles, in the south of France, fared the best. The bees approached the yellow and orange painting the most, 146 times, landing on it 15 times.

They approached Gauguin's painting from Tahiti in 1896 almost half as often (81 times). But they buzzed on to it an impressive 11 times.

Perhaps aping contemporary taste, the bees were less enamoured of 20th-century artists, although they took a good look.

They flew near Caulfield's picture of interlocking jugs 138 times and Leger's geometric work 117 times, but they landed on each just four times.

Parts of the pictures, though, were of particular interest to the bees, especially the blue areas, which researchers thought might be linked to blue's association with high-nectar flowers.

The industrious bees were drawn to Van Gogh's blue signature, the blue blooms in the Gauguin, and to a light blue square in Still Life With A Beer Mug.

Professor Lars Chittka, of Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, suggested that the findings indicated that bees had an innate attraction to flowers - and that the Van Gogh and Gauguin captured the essence of flowers, despite being highly expressive and emotive artists.

"The results show that the flower paintings have captured the essence of floral features from a bee's point of view, and that these features are recognised by bees that have never been exposed to flowers before," Professor Chittka, a specialist in bee navigation, said. "Flowers contain all the goods that a bee needs to thrive - pollen and nectar - and selection has therefore favoured bees with 'aesthetic preferences' for those flowers which offer the best bonanzas."

Professor Chittka believed that humans, too, may have sound evolutionary reasons for liking flowers, even though we cannot eat them, which could explain their prominent place in the history of art. Professor Chittka suggested that flowers may have acted as colourful signposts, pointing the way to food sources.

He said: "Flowers point to important resources, for example the presence of water, and future availability of fruits, nuts and honey."

The findings of the bumblebee study appear in the journal Optics and Laser Technology.