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Bumblebees find efficient routes without a GPS

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21 September 2012

Scientists from Queen Mary, University of London have tracked bumblebees for the first time to see how they select the optimal route to collect nectar from multiple flowers and return to their nest. Their work was part-funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

In a paper published in PLOS Biology today (20 September), the scientists, working with the Harmonic Radar Group at Rothamsted Research, were able to use radar tracking to show how bumblebees discover flowers, learn their location and use trial and error to find the most efficient route between flowers over large distances.

Professor Lars Chittka and Dr Mathieu Lihoreau from Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and colleagues set up five artificial flowers in a 1km diameter field. Each flower was fitted with motion-triggered webcams and had landing platforms with drops of sucrose in the middle (ref 1).

"Using mathematical models, we dissected bees' learning process and identified how they may decipher this optimal solution without a map. Initially, their routes were long and complex, revisiting empty flowers several times," Dr Lihoreau explained.

"But, as they gained experienced, the bees gradually refined their routes through trial and error. Each time a bee tried a new route it increased its probability of re-using the new route if it was shorter than the shortest route it had tried before. Otherwise the new route was abandoned and another was tested.

"After an average of 26 times each bee went foraging, which meant they tried about 20 of the 120 possible routes, they were able to select the most efficient path to visit the flowers, without computing all the possibilities."

Professor Chittka and colleagues have previously shown that bees were able to learn the shortest route possible to navigate between flowers in the lab but this is the first time they have been able to observe this behaviour in natural conditions and to describe how bees may optimise their routes.

"The speed at which they learn through trial and error is quite extraordinary for bumblebees as this complex behaviour was thought to be one which only larger-brained animals were capable of," Professor Chittka said.

"Interestingly, we also found that if we removed a flower, bees continued looking at that location – even if it was empty for an extended period of time. It seems bees don't easily forget a fruitful flower."

The scientists used motion-triggered web cams and tiny bumblebee-mounted radar transponders to track the bumblebees. The recordings on the flowers showed that bees exhibited considerable individuality – each one had a favoured arrival and departure direction, different from the other bees.

Head of Computational and Systems Biology at Rothamsted Research, Professor Chris Rawlings, added: "This is an exciting result because it shows that seemingly complex behaviours can be described by relatively simple rules which can be described mathematically.

"This means we can now use mathematics to inform us when bee behaviour might be affected by their environment and to assess, for example, the impact of changes in the landscape."

Reference

To keep the bees' focus on the artificial flowers, the experiments were done in October, when natural sources of nectar and pollen were scarce. To make the bees want to find all five flowers, each sucrose drop was only enough to fill one fifth of a bumblebee's crop. And to keep the bees from finding one foraging site from another visually, the flowers were arranged in a pentagon that was 50 metres on each side, which is more than three times as far as bumblebees can see.

ENDS

Notes to editors

For more information or to arrange an interview with Dr Lihoreau or Professor Chittka, please see external contact details below.

Lihoreau, M et al. 'Radar Tracking and Motion-Sensitive Cameras on Flowers Reveal the Development of Pollinator Multi-Destination Routes over Large Spatial Scales' published in PLOS Biology online on 20 September 2012. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001392

The article is available at: www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001392.

The research was supported by a combined grant from the Wellcome Trust, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

About Queen Mary, University of London

Queen Mary, University of London is one of the UK's leading research-focused higher education institutions with some 16,900 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Amongst the largest of the colleges of the University of London, Queen Mary is a member of the Russell Group, which represents the 24 leading universities in the UK.

Queen Mary's 3,800 staff deliver world class degree programmes and research across 21 academic departments and institutes, within three sectors: Science and Engineering; Humanities, Social Sciences and Laws; and the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Queen Mary is ranked 11th in the UK according to the Guardian analysis of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, and has been described as 'the biggest star among the research-intensive institutions' by the Times Higher Education.

The College has a strong international reputation, with around 20 per cent of students coming from over 100 countries. Queen Mary has an annual turnover of £300M, research income worth £70M, and generates employment and output worth £600M to the UK economy each year.

The College is unique amongst London's universities in being able to offer a completely integrated residential campus, with a 2,000-bed award-winning Student Village on its Mile End campus.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M (2011-2012), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk.
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes.

External contact

Bridget Dempsey, PR Manager at Queen Mary, University of London

tel: 0207 8827927