Bees Solve Complicated Math Problem Faster Than Computers

Bumble bees outsmart computers: image via gimundo.comBumble bees outsmart computers: image via gimundo.comThe "Traveling Salesman Problem" is a complex mathematical problem that involves finding the shortest route to all destinations in the shortest amount of time.  A computer is tied up for days figuring out the solution, but not so for bumble bees! 

In fact, according to experiments conducted by biological scientists at the Royal Holloway University of London and the Queen Mary University of London, bees solve this problem easily every day.  

In the realm, say, of computer processing, the pathways for information are found by comparing the lengths of all possible routes and picking the shortest one - a mathematical process known as the Traveling Salesman Problem. Though biologists know that foraging animals tend to revisit sources of food in predictable sequences (traplines), little is known about how their spatial memory develops and guides them to suitable roots.

So the biologists from both campuses of the University of London decided to explore how the resourceful bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) solves the Traveling Salesman Problem.  The biologists set up a series of flower patches, one at a time, in a long (suboptimal) route. The patches were set up gradually, over one or two nights each.


A bee's brain is about the size of a grass seed.: image via, photo by Rex FeaturesA bee's brain is about the size of a grass seed.: image via, photo by Rex Features


Though the bees initially followed the order in which they were introduced to the the flowers, as they gained familiarity, they developed their own pathways to the flowers, and sometimes even modified their visitations, so they had a primary route and two or three less traveled routes, "while occasionally exploring novel possibilities."

Dr. Nigel Raine, one of the chief investigators of the study, explained the bees' natural instincts in this way:  "Foraging bees... visit flowers at multiple locations and, because bees use lots of energy to fly, they find a route which keeps flying to a minimum."

The implications of this study are more wide-reaching than they appear.  Because our lifestyles depend on networks like information, traffic, supply chains, and others, nature can sometimes supply more effective and efficient solutions than computers, in far less time.

This research is published in this week's issue of  The American Naturalist.

The American Naturalist, Guardian via Gimundo