Bumblebee Math

Test setup.

Test setup.

The February 2012 National Geographic Magazine, page 26, describes an experiment designed to test how efficiently bumblebees navigate between flowers. Six artificial nectar sources were setup near a nest box. And individual foraging behavior was monitored. Here’s what they found:

The flight of the bumblebee-even when not set to music-may seem frenetic and random as the workers forage for pollen and nectar to carry home. But researchers at Queen Mary, University of London discovered there’s choreography in the flower bed. Each bee has a brain the size of a grass seed, but the insects are able to harvest efficiently by solving one of math’s great puzzles: the traveling salesman problem.

The challenge is to find the shortest way to visit each flower once before returning to the nest. Computers must resort to laborious calculations, measuring each possible route. The bees studied, Bombus terrestris, and perhaps other species use spatial memory, rapidly refining routes through trial and error. (Hint: Moving to the next nearest flower isn’t the answer.) Scientists know why the bees do it – ­flying is exhausting. Now they’re trying to figure out how the insects do it. Learning what dictates their decisions could yield insights that improve our transportation and communication networks. To the bees, it’s just a matter of good orchestration.  -Gretchen Parker

The results.

I hate to admit it, but I figured bee foraging was a more random process. Maybe at best, bees would fly to the nearest source and then work the next nearest source in a particular direction. That’s how the bus I drive is dispatched.

But that’s inefficient, especially when more than one bus is involved. It’s not uncommon for two buses to pass each other to finish that last leg shown in the longest route diagram above. And they end up where the other was! 😉


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8 Responses

  1. laurie lange says:


    Visited your site about a week ago and believe it was on your blogs somewhere that you talked about how you aren’t seeing bumblebees anymore. I run a habitat site for native bees in New Mexico. Did some trapping for baseline data about what native species were around in 2008; then the next year DID NOT SEE almost all of the species collected in ’08, including some interesting wasps. Have seen few since. Am going to be presenting some of this info on a radio show this Sat (Feb 25), and was interested in reading that paragraph where you mentioned how scary it was to not see bumbles around, but I can’t find it. If this was you, and you know where you mentioned that, would it be possible for you to send that paragraph to me via email? —I want to mention anecdotal info from other parts of the country.

    Hope to hear from you; when I have more time, perhaps we could compare notes on this. I”m starting a business focused on explaining how all gardens can be pollinator support gardens to help out in this time of questions re the survival of both honeybee & other pollinator populations.

    Laurie Lange

  2. laurie lange says:

    HI again Dennis, My email address had an extra letter in it in post just sent. Correct e-address is attached to this note. Laurie L

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