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.