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Bees always find the most direct route home – how can they do that with such small brain?

Posted October 7, 2017

Bees are nothing short of amazing. They are a crucial part of our planet‘s nature, they are hard workers and humans learned to take advantage of them somehow, but still don‘t fully understand bees. For example, how do they find the most direct route back to their hives? A new study, conducted in The University of Edinburgh revealed that the wiring in bee‘s brain helps it to come back home.

Bee’s brain is the size of a rice grain. Image credit: Richard Bartz via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 2.5)

The thing is that the bees do not fly to flower field in the shortest path. They zig-zag around looking for flowers, they jump from one location to another, but then, when time comes to go back to their hive, they go in the most direct route. Scientists say that it is thanks to a complex navigation system hidden in the wiring of bees’ brains. This complex neural network maps the outbound journey and calculated the most direct route back.

Brains of a bee are smaller than a grain of rice and yet it’s so complex. Bees navigate using visual cues, but, as now discovered, they have neurons that help detecting and analysing speed and direction. Their brain figures out how these two flight parameters work out together and draw a complex map of the most direct route back to the hive. These neurons in question are in the central complex of the bee’s brain. This region is known to work as a navigation system, used my many animals, including humans. These neurons use memories from the outbound journey to see what is the most efficient way to come back home. In case of bees it works flawlessly – bees very rarely do not come back to the hive on most direct route.

You may think that for bees it is not that difficult – they can fly higher and see further. However, scientists studied bees from rianforests, which are not exactly easy to navigate. Incredibly, researchers managed to attach minute electrodes to the brains of the bees. Then they showed bees virtual reality simulations of what they see when flying forward or rotating and monitored neural activity in their brain. This information allowed scientists to create a complex computer model of the bee’s brain. Possibly, it will allow the creating new algorithms for navigation in autonomous robots.

Barbara Webb, one of the authors of the study, said: “The most exciting part of this research was when computer modelling of the ‘spaghetti’ of connections between nerve cells revealed the elegant principle by which bees keep track of their position and steer back home”

Scientists believe that the information gathered in this study could lay foundation for the next step forward for the science of brain function. This is quite interesting – brains the size of a rice grain can teach us so much and are still so mysterious so far.


Source: The University of Edinburgh

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