Maxwell Delorenzo, Louis Robson
The iron laws of numbers and logic, dubbed ‘the language of the universe’, express themselves in every nook and cranny of a natural world that is teeming with complexity. And whilst we may think of ourselves as higher beings, the fact of the matter is that many of the exact problems which puzzle us humans are ones that nature has already solved.
One of these is the travelling salesman problem: given a list of points and the distances between them, what is the shortest route to travel to them all? Research suggests that bees, the unassuming creatures that happily buzz around from flower to flower, can solve this conundrum.
This problem is, well, hard – hard enough that there’s a math term to describe just how difficult it is: ‘NP-Hard’. Throw 50 points on a map, and you get 1064 different routes available between them – not too far off the estimated number of atoms in the universe.
Bees have had 130 million years to perfect their honey-collecting strategy. Evolution has delivered – although they have yet to surpass human math (understandably so, with a brain the size of a grass seed), this specific problem is one bees have come to master. It’s useful when you have to cover a large area with little time and energy to waste.
We’re still not sure exactly how it’s done: it seems the basic intuition already gifted to them is enough to get a decent approximation of the best route. Working from that, a diligent process of trial-and-error allows them to optimise their ‘traplines’ over time.
This was experimentally shown by a group of researchers who set up tiny antennae on bees and created 5 artificial flowers that the bees would have to navigate. On average, the bees tried around 20 different routes out of a possible 120 until they found the optimised path, 80% better than their original attempts.
Even when the positions of the flowers were changed, the insects could adapt. Interestingly, whilst humans can construct a mental map of a set of points to find the best way to visit them all, bees simply lack the brainpower. What researchers were surprised to find was that bees could have a dynamic approach to the puzzle without needing to visualize it at all.
The ability to reach a complex decision with almost no computing power would be immensely useful for our own navigation and logistical technology, and studying the way bees work could help us develop new methods of approaching the problem. Importantly, a better understanding of how pollinating insects locate food would be crucial for conservation efforts. This is critical given the shaky status of bees as they vanish around the world.
Many things in nature seem just downright mindless or erratic, and the amusing (or irritating) buzzing of a bee may be no exception. But there is method to their madness. Who would have thought we could learn so much from a tiny creature with no time to waste?