Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have found that bumblebees are capable of complex problem solving that could ultimately lead to faster computer networks and microchips. The researchers discovered that bumblebees find the shortest route among landmarks, in this case flowers, through a simple but effective method.
The researchers set up five fake flowers in a field, each with a little bit of sucrose to entice the bees, and outfitted with motion-triggered web cams. They tracked the bees' flight paths with tiny bumblebee-mounted radar transponders to see how long it took them to find the fastest route starting from the nest, visiting all five flowers and then back to the nest. The team then modeled the flight paths and found that, amazingly, the bees were able to find the quickest route after trying just 20 out of the 120 possible routes. And the researchers were more surprised that it seemed that the bees were using trial and error, which is a more complex behavior typically seen only in larger-brained animals.
The key, it seems, to their quickly find the shortest route was a simple system where after discovering all five flowers, the bees would start trying new routes. If a new route between flowers was the fastest yet, it would increase the probability that it would be tried again -- essentially the bees were committing the fastest routes to memory and eliminating the slower ones until finally an optimal route was found.
Head of Computational and Systems Biology at Rothamsted Research, Professor Chris Rawlings said,"This is an exciting result because it shows that seemingly complex behaviours can be described by relatively simple rules which can be described mathematically."
The mathematics is what could eventually be used to build faster computer networks, sequence DNA or help delivery companies find the most efficient routes among cities. And just as important, it could help to protect the bumblebees themselves. The researchers found that when a flower was moved or removed, the bees would keep visiting that location for an extended period of time, but then eventually find its new location or a new flower.
“This means we can now use mathematics to inform us when bee behaviour might be affected by their environment and to assess, for example, the impact of changes in the landscape," Rawlings said.