How Bees Find Flowers

Image courtesy of Andrew Martin

How bees find flowers has been a mystery for a long time. So, to settle the matter once and for all, a group of  researchers from Queen Mary University of London set about discover the answer to this problem.Scientists attached tiny radar tracking devices and motion activated cameras and set about finding out how they find the best route form flower to flower. For this purpose 5 flowers were placed in a pentagon at a distance of 50 meters apart. This is crucial because it represented a distance further than the bees can see, so that they could not be said to have been relying on sight on their path to the flowers.

The month chosen for the experiment was October because it is a time of year when there are few natural sources of pollen available so the bees would be more likely to seek out the artificial flowers that had sugar at their centre. The bees were also watched by motion cameras every day for a month as they did their rounds of the flowers over a 7 hour day.

Previous experiments had been undertaken in the past, with researchers running alongside the bees to record their movements, but the lack of accurate tracking caused the results to be inconclusive.

What researchers discovered was that the bees initial route between the flowers was long and arduous. They didn’t appear to be operating an any sort of cognitive-map and even revisited the same flowers several times during early attempts.

As things progressed, they began to refine their routes, first visiting the nearest flower and the others in sequence and then trying different combinations of flight paths to find the most economic route.

This trial-and error method was surprisingly fast for the bees, and they learned the quickest route faster than anticipated, to reduce their overall flight distance by some 80 percent.

Scientist concluded that the bee did not in fact possess the use of cognitive maps.  “The idea of a cognitive map is very contentious,” Lihoreau says. “But it’s not a very parsimonious hypothesis; it seems a lot to expect from a small brain with less than one million neurons.”

The conclusion was that what looks to be complex behaviour to explain how bees bees find flowers was in fact reliant on a series of simple principals. Through what is essential a trial-and-error process, the bees were able to learn surprisingly fast.

This proves that bumblebees can get by quite adequately without a cognitive map, as suggested by chris Rawlings, Head of Computation and Systems Biology at Rothamsted Research, who stated, “This is a really exciting result because it shows that seemingly complex behaviors can be described by relatively simple rules, which can be described mathematically. This means we can now use mathematics to inform us when been behavior might be affected by their environment and to assess, for example, the impact of changes in the landscape.”

The bees also were revealed as being quite resistant to change, as when a flower was removed they still persisted to visit the flowers previous location.

Simple heuristics are said to be responsible for how bees find flowers and what is remarkable in the research is the speed and accuracy in which bees use this simple principal to find flowers.