Honeybees Can Be Either Left- Or Right-Handed

Some honeybees have a left or right bias when flying. Emily Skeels/Shutterstock

Many animals favor one side of their body over the other, from elephants with a fondness for one tusk to kangaroos having a penchant to use their left hand for various tasks. But this preference is not limited to creatures with more cognitive know-how, as researchers have found that the humble honeybee has a predilection for the left or right too.

The new study, published in PLOS One, found that while some bees didn’t seem to have an inclination to fly on one side or the other, others clearly and consistently had a bias. “Unlike humans, who are mostly right-handed, some bees display a strong left bias, others a strong right bias, and yet others a weak or zero bias,” says Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, co-author on the paper.

The researchers used a number of different experiments on their little insect test subjects. The basic set up involved a long tube, with a tasty nectar treat at one end. For the bees though, it wasn’t quite this simple, as the researchers placed an obstacle in the middle to force the bees to choose between going either left or right and passing through a hole.

For the first set up, they varied the size of the holes, and the honeybees invariable chose the larger opening around 80 percent of the time. This, obviously, would make sense for a bee so as to not get stuck. Yet when the researchers made the two holes equal in size, the bees then did something unexpected.

While roughly half the insects showed zero preference for which hole they went through, it turned out that 45 percent of the bees very much did mind which hole they flew through, and had clear preferences for either the left or the right side. But when the researchers then tested these bees further, by varying the sizes of the holes again, things got interesting.

If they took a right-handed bee and put her in a tunnel in which the left hole was larger, she would hesitate slightly before going to the bigger opening, as if trying to decide which route to take. When they then did this the other way, and placed the larger hole on the right side, the bee took a shorter period of time to make the decision of which way to go.

“We believe these individual biases help to improve the flight efficiency of a swarm of bees through densely cluttered environments,” Professor Srinivasan continues. “Flying insects constantly face the challenge of choosing efficient, safe and collision-free routes while navigating through dense foliage.”

The researchers think that this new knowledge could help in drone design, by helping to create aircrafts that make autonomous decisions while flying. 

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