For years, researchers have struggled to understand how bees navigate so effectively with such small brains. Now, an EU-funded project has developed new technology to enhance our understanding and to potentially advance efforts in bee conservation. This new knowledge could also be transferred to other sectors, such as engineering.
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For years, bee populations have suffered a dramatic decline, which has been a worrying trend for scientists and environmentalists, among many others. We rely on bees for much of our food. Around 70 % of our most popular food crops including fruits, nuts and vegetables are pollinated by bees which means that further reduction in their numbers could threaten food security on a global scale.
However, despite the crucial role played by bees in the food chain, until recently almost nothing was known about the ways they navigate between their hives and the vegetation they pollinate. To understand how close patches of wildflowers or clover need to be to sustain pollinator populations, its very important to understand how far bees fly and what their spatial patterns are, says Lars Chittka, Professor in Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary University in the United Kingdom.
That is why researchers in the EUs SpaceRadarPollinator project, funded by the European Research Council, set out to develop new technology to track individual bees as they move around and then create 3D visualisations of their journeys, in effect reconstructing what the world looks like from a bees point of view. This 3D reconstruction is important because it will enable researchers to understand what the bee sees as it is flying and how landmarks and other visual triggers influence its behaviour.
Hive of activity
Its remarkable that these bees have brains the size of a pinhead yet they manage to navigate with 100 % reliability over distances of many miles, always remembering where their home and flower patches are, says Chittka, the projects principal investigator. There has been a century or more of fascination with this problem but, for the first time, our project was able to follow bees throughout their entire lifetime, from the first time they left their hives to their death.
By attaching miniature transponders to the bees backs, researchers were able to watch where and how high they travelled in real time. During the project, the SpaceRadarPollinator team also developed new radar technology that allowed the bees journeys to be tracked and visualised in 3D rather than 2D. However, this was not used in the field until after the project had ended in the summer of 2019.
As a result of this project, researchers are now able to understand how bees spend the first hours of their life, exploring their environment in loops to find out where nearby flowers patches are located. For the SpaceRadarPollinator team, it was significant how little time it took the bees to solve the travelling salesman problem how to find the quickest route between flower patches.
This is a challenge that can keep computers busy for very long periods as they try out all the possible routes, explains Chittka. But the bees were very quick at finding the optimal solution, typically taking only a few hours.
These insights were not the only breakthrough. The SpaceRadarPollinator team also held a series of experiments inside the laboratory with ground-breaking results. By testing bees spatial problem-solving abilities, they were able to establish that they could learn to manoeuvre a ball simply by watching others. They were also able to pull on strings, push caps and even rotate levers to access food. No one knew insects could solve this type of task, says Chittka.
Thanks to this project, researchers have dramatically improved the understanding of bees problem-solving abilities and their daily movements and travel. Besides being channelled into conservation efforts to protect pollinator populations across Europe, this new knowledge could also be transferred to other sectors, such as engineering.
Despite their size, bees brains have proved remarkably efficient at solving navigational problems an insight that researchers plan to try to emulate as they design technology and equipment such as unmanned vehicles for disaster monitoring and earthquakes.
Chittka believes that humans still have a lot to learn from the humble bee. There is nothing in the engineering world that is as efficient and effectively miniaturised as a bees brain, he concludes.