Bees Best Bill

I like this one.

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have determined that bees can solve complex mathematical problems that keep computers busy, mystified, for days.

Bees quickly learn, somehow, to fly the shortest route between flowers discovered in random order . . . and using a brain the size of a grass seed.

Computers, meanwhile, lag far behind, approaching the problem by methodically comparing the length of all possible routes, and then selecting the one that measures the shortest.

Bees here effectively solve the “travelling salesman problem,” which involves finding the shortest route permitting a travelling salesman to call at all the locations s/he needs to visit.

Dr Nigel Raine, from Royal Holloway’s school of biological sciences, said: “Foraging bees solve travelling salesman problems every day. They visit flowers at multiple locations and, because bees use lots of energy to fly, they find a route which keeps flying to a minimum.”

Using computer-controlled artificial flowers to test bee behaviour, he wanted to know whether the insects would follow a simple route defined by the order in which they found the flowers, or look for the shortest route.

After exploring the location of the flowers, the bees quickly learned to fly the best route for saving time and energy.

Science Men would like to figure out how bees do this, so they can apply it to such aspects of “modern living” as traffic flows, internet information, and business supply chains.

“Despite their tiny brains bees are capable of extraordinary feats of behaviour,” complained Raine. “We need to understand how they can solve the travelling salesman problem without a computer.”

Well . . . “things keep their secrets,” as Heraclitus saw, some 2500 years ago. Can’t expect them to cough up those secrets just ’cause you want to unruck your roads. Bees may have brains the size of a grass seed, but, as these Science Men have learned, they surely ain’t dumb.


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When I Worked

October 2010
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