Scientists Looked At Bee Brains To Understand What Makes Them Such Good Navigators


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockOct 18 2017, 16:48 UTC

The European honey bee. alias612/shutterstock

Scientists have taken a closer look at the incredible capability of bees to find a direct route home even after flying kilometers in adverse conditions. The research focused on nocturnal rainforest bees.

The researchers, publishing in Current Biology, looked at bee brains and discovered that they have neurons dedicated to measuring speed and distance covered during flight and other neurons that act as a compass. These use information stored from polarized light to work out the insect's location.


"We show how 'speed neurons' and 'direction neurons' work separately, but also how they likely cooperate to generate a memory that the bee uses to fly straight home after its nightly tours of the rainforest," co-author Stanley Heinze, from Lund University in Sweden, said in a statement.

Many animals use a path integration method to find a direct way home. It’s like the dead reckoning used in navigation. If you know where you’ve been you can work out where you are and how to get back to base in a straight line.

The researchers monitored bees' neurons while they performed virtual flights. This allowed the team to create a computer model of how the bees' brains were working.


"We then built a robot and tested our model in reality. We sent it out on a random route and the model of the bee's navigation system that we implemented in the robot allowed it to find the direct path back to its starting point," explained Heinze.

Bees continue to be absolutely fascinating. Their brains are the size of a grain of rice and have 100,000 times fewer neurons than the average human, yet they are capable of complex flight paths to and from their hives. Still, over the last few years, we have discovered that these skills can be disrupted by human activity.

"After all, we know that pesticides are detrimental to the bees' sense of direction, which means that fewer of them will be able to return to their hive after pollinating plants in our modern agricultural landscapes. Meanwhile, the majority of food production in the world is dependent on bees pollinating crop plants. Understanding the details of the bee's internal navigation system may therefore prove crucial when trying to design strategies to avoid disrupting them," Heinze continued.


Many fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are staples of our diets wouldn’t exist without the hard work of bees. Keeping them safe and healthy is in everybody’s interest.  

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