Research out of the University of London shows that bees are on par with supercomputers when it comes to solving certain complex mathematical problems. Despite having brains the size of a grass seed, bees can learn to fly the shortest route possible between flowers even if they discover the flowers in a different order. They are in essence solving the “traveling salesman’s” shortest route problem, and are the first animals shown to have this ability.
The traveling salesman puzzle goes like this. The salesperson must figure out the shortest path that will make possible a visit to all locations on a given route. Computers solve this problem by comparing all possible routes and selecting the shortest. Bees, however, are able to do the same task sans computer assistance.
Dr Nigel Raine, from the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, explains that finding the shortest route allows bees to conserve their energy by keeping flight time to a minimum.
For their study, the scientists used computer-controlled artificial flowers to test whether the bees would follow a simple route defined by the order in which they found the flowers, or would look for the shortest route. After an initial exploration of the flower locations, the bees quickly determined the shortest route.
Scientists are eager to understand how bees are able to solve the traveling salesman problem without a computer. Hidden in the bee movements are algorithms that can potentially be repurposed for the benefit of human-related endeavors. Breaking the bee code could lead to more effective management of network flow problems with reduced reliance on computers. This makes sense for a variety of real-time tasks that take place in the field where access to big computers is impractical. Targeted applications are likely to include traffic control, network flow, and business supply chains.