Last fall, bumblebees enjoyed their moment in the sun, as a series of headlines proclaimed that they were mathematical geniuses:
“Tiny Bee Brains Beat Computers at Complex Math Problems”
– Fox News1
“Bees Solve Complex Problems Faster Than Supercomputers”
– The Daily Galaxy2
“Bees’ brains more powerful than computers”
– Natural News3
What was all the fanfare about? Are we about to enter a new era in which paparazzi stalk bees rather than reality TV stars? (We won’t complain if this is the case.) PhysOrg.com4 summarized the context as follows:
Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London and Royal Holloway, University of London have discovered that bees learn to fly the shortest possible route between flowers even if they discover the flowers in a different order. Bees are effectively solving the ‘Travelling Salesman Problem’, and these are the first animals found to do this.
The Travelling Salesman must find the shortest route that allows him to visit all locations on his route. Computers solve it by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest. However, bees solve it without computer assistance using a brain the size of grass seed.
Professor Lars Chittka from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences said: “In nature, bees have to link hundreds of flowers in a way that minimises travel distance, and then reliably find their way home – not a trivial feat if you have a brain the size of a pinhead! Indeed such travelling salesmen 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 complex problem solving.”
In actuality, the bumblebees’ achievements, while impressive, were a bit more modest than publicized.
Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) do indeed visit flowers in predictable sequences called “traplines,” and the UK research team wanted to learn more about whether these sequences simply reflect the order in which flowers are discovered or whether they result from more complex navigational strategies enabling bees to optimize their foraging routes. Accordingly, the researchers set up an array consisting of four (not hundreds of) artificial flowers, which they introduced to bumblebees in sequence.
The researchers observed that over time the bees tended to stop visiting the artificial flowers in their discovery order and, through a process of trial and error, began reorganizing their preferred routes to minimize total flight distance. In general, the bumblebees adopted a primary route and two or three less frequently used secondary routes, with the primary route typically being the shortest distance route. The bees also did a (reasonably) good job of remembering the most efficient route after an overnight break.
Even though the bees gravitated toward the shortest route, they did continue to experiment with novel routes, a behavior that – the researchers hypothesized – might allow them to fine tune their behavior as new sources of food were found over time.
Now, in their research paper5, the UK team did note that the bees’ search to find the shortest path among flowers is analogous to the traveling salesman problem, and did state that “Our findings suggest that traplining animals can find (or approach) optimal solutions to dynamic traveling salesman problems (variations of the classic problem where availability of sites changes over time) simply by adjusting their routes by trial and error in response to environmental changes.” These observations are, however, just a tad less dramatic than the “triumph over supercomputers” celebrated in the popular media reports on the research.
So what are the morals of this story?
- While all too often animals are derided as “dumb beasts” and the like, sometimes we go in the opposite direction, overstating what animals are capable of accomplishing in order to create a sensation.
- Even without the hyperbole, bumblebee route optimization behavior is noteworthy. There are often multiple ways to solve difficult problems, and sometimes the efficient approaches developed by animals who do not boast large brains can be surprisingly effective.
- Insects, both in collective groups and as individuals, seem to be particularly adept at finding rational solutions that have an almost mathematical feel to them.
- Bumblebees can sure generate a lot of buzz.
1Fox News, “Tiny Bee Brains Beat Computers at Complex Math Problems,” October 25, 2010.
2The Daily Galaxy, “Bees Solve Complex Problems Faster Than Supercomputers,” October 26, 2010.
3Natural News, “Bees’ brains more powerful than computers,” October 27, 2010.
4PhysOrg.com, “Complex mathematical problem solved by bees,” October 25, 2010.
5Lihoreau M, Chittka L, & Raine NE (2010). Travel optimization by foraging bumblebees through readjustments of traplines after discovery of new feeding locations. The American naturalist, 176 (6), 744-57 PMID: 20973670.