Psychophysics of the hoverfly: Categorical or continuous color discrimination?

Lea Hannah, Adrian G. Dyer, Jair E. Garcia, Alan Dorin, Martin Burd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


There is increasing interest in flies as potentially important pollinators. Flies are known to have a complex visual system, including 4 spectral classes of photoreceptors that contribute to the perception of color. Our current understanding of how color signals are perceived by flies is based on data for the blowfly Lucilia sp., which after being conditioned to rewarded monochromatic light stimuli, showed evidence of a categorical color visual system. The resulting opponent fly color space has 4 distinct categories, and has been used to interpret how some fly pollinators may perceive flower colors. However, formal proof that flower flies (Syrphidae) only use a simple, categorical color process remains outstanding. In free-flying experiments, we tested the hoverfly Eristalis tenax, a Batesian mimic of the honeybee, that receives its nutrition by visiting flowers. Using a range of broadband similar-dissimilar color stimuli previously used to test color perception in pollinating hymenopteran species, we evaluated if there are steep changes in behavioral choices with continuously increasing color differences as might be expected by categorical color processing. Our data revealed that color choices by the hoverfly are mediated by a continuous monotonic function. Thus, these flies did not use a categorical processing, but showed evidence of a color discrimination function similar to that observed in several bee species. We therefore empirically provide data for the minimum color distance that can be discriminated by hoverflies in fly color space, enabling an improved understanding of plant-pollinator interactions with a non-model insect species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)483-492
Number of pages10
JournalCurrent Zoology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • chromatic signal
  • color model
  • floral color
  • fly pollination
  • plant-pollinator
  • vision

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