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Bees Do the Math for Fastest Way to Food

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bumblebees may solve some complex mathematical problems even faster than supercomputers, a new British study suggests.

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London and Royal Holloway University of London report that bees are the first animals known to solve the classical Traveling Salesman Problem, which involves finding the shortest possible way for a salesman to deliver goods to multiple locations. It's harder than it sounds. Computers solve it by identifying the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest. Bees do it using their own tiny brains.

Lars Chittka, from Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, says in the school's news release: "In nature bees have to link hundreds of flowers in a way that minimizes travel distance-then reliably find their way home-not a trivial feat if you have a brain the size of a pinhead! Indeed, such traveling salesman problems keep supercomputers busy for days. Studying how bee brains solve such challenging tasks might allow us to identify the minimal neural circuitry required for solving complex problems."

In the research, published in The American Naturalist, the scientific team used computer controlled artificial flowers placed in foraging patches. The team started with one patch, than sequentially added three more. If the foraging bees settled on a route based on the order in which they found the flowers, it would be a long suboptimal trip. After exploring the flowers, however, they quickly learned the shortest most efficient routes.

Matthieu Lihoreau, co-author and researcher, adds: "There is a common perception that smaller brains constrain animals to be simple reflex machines. But our work with bees shows advanced cognitive capacities with very limited neuron numbers. There is an urgent need to understand the neurological hardware underpinning animal intelligence, and relatively simple nervous systems such as those of these insects make this mystery more tractable."

Researchers have already found honeybees bees to be adept at facial recognition because of their ability to identify patterns. Scientists think better understanding of bee brains can improve our understanding of such network problems as traffic flow, supply chains and epidemiology.

The Queen Mary University has sparked lively debates, curiosity, and some dissenting views. Read the article in The Daily Galaxy and the commentary that follows it.

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