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Sinister bees

By Timothy Cocks Graded Motor Imagery 13 Jan 2014

Honeybees use right antennae to tell friend from foe

Determining whether a pictured limb is a left or right arm, foot, hand, knee etc is no trivial task.  Neurologically speaking there are likely three distinct processes that occur.  Firstly, a spontaneous and unconscious judgement is made.  Secondly, the mind performs some mental movement, manipulating the body part using some of the same brain activation patterns (neurotags) we would use to actually move the body part. Thirdly, a kind of check is made using the mental movement performed to confirm whether the initial judgement was correct – if it is then we respond with the right answer. If the initial judgement is proved wrong by our mental gymnastics then we start again (Moseley, Butler et al 2012).

This ability in humans is both pretty important and pretty complex, and there is evidence that in chronic pain states, CRPS in particular, that this ability can go “off” (Moseley, Gallace and Spence 2012).  There is also good evidence that this ability can be retrained  – training left/right judgements is the first stage of Graded Motor Imagery and most likely is an essential ability that allows the whole GMI process to work (see Moseley, Butler et al for a comprehensive guide).

But what about the bees?

When both members of the pair came from one hive, couples with intact right antennae responded quickly with a French kiss of sorts: They used their tongues to sample each other’s fluids. But leftie hive-mates held back the friendly overtures, sometimes exposing their jaws or pointing stingers at each other.

It seems that a left/right judgement for bees could be very much a life or death decision.

And why sinister?

It’s interesting to note that bees with left-only antennas tended to act aggressively towards each other. The origin of the word “sinister” is from the Latin “sinistra” meaning left – do bees understand Latin?

-Tim Cocks

The noigroup faculty is teaching the very finest Graded Motor Imagery and Explain Pain courses all around the globe over the next 12 months, from Doorn in the Netherlands to Derby in the UK. Meanwhile, Brendan Haslam will be taking the brand new Pain, Plasticity and Rehabilitation course to  Portland in January and  David Butler will be touring the US in February. Checkout the noigroup courses page for dates, locations and all other details.

Moseley GL, Butler DS, Beames TB, Giles TJ (2012) The Graded Motor Imagery Handbook. Noigroup Publications, Adelaide Australia.

Moseley GL, Gallace A, Spence C (2012) Bodily illusions in health and disease physiological and clinical perspectives and the concept of a cortical body matrix. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 36:34-36


  1. davidbutler0noi

    I have been pondering this for a while Tim – and of course left and right makes up one of then most polarised dualisms of all time – so embedded that we dont think of it as dualistic. Hey may we are not so left or right as we think, maybe we need to take a closer look at the ambidextrous, maybe a little more leeway is needed when interpreting recognise results.

    Did you know that 60-85% of people hold a baby in their left arm, except in Madagascar where it is the opposite?


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