Honeybees tirelessly commute between rewarding flower patches and their hive, often hundreds or even thousands of metres apart. Their remarkable navigational skills rely on distinct landmarks, such as trees or houses, which they very efficiently find and memorize on orientation flights.
Experts fitted a transponder – a tiny dipole aerial much lighter than the nectar or pollen normally carried by the bee – to the thorax. Tracking each bee individually allowed them to pick up a radar signal from the transponder showing where and how it was flying. The aerial is harmless to the bee and removable.
Bees, like humans, can fall ill and getting around during periods of sickness can become very challenging. The study shows that even very sick bees are still able to search their surroundings optimally in so-called Levy flight patterns.
Lead author Dr Stephan Wolf, from Queen Mary University of London, said:
“The honeybees we observed had remarkably robust searching abilities, which indicate this might be hardwired in the bees rather than learned, making bees strong enough to withstand pathogens and possibly other stressors, and allowing them to still contribute to their colony by, for example, foraging for food.”
Levy search patterns are a natural mathematical pattern found across the animal kingdom, including in early human hunter-gathers, and describe certain movements like stalking for prey or searching for mates. The pattern alternates between clusters of short steps interjected with longer steps in between, which allows the individual to efficiently comb through large surface areas.
During the study the team monitored 78 bees, some of which were unwell. The researchers discovered that the unhealthy bees did not fly as far or for as long as the healthy bees but they continued to search in the same manner, suggesting that the pattern was inbuilt.
The work opens up new avenues to better understand and ultimately mitigate a number of adverse factors affecting the way animals interact with their environment, including ecological key species such as bee pollinators.
The study was published in the Scientific Reports journal. (ANI)