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Tiny trackers untangle bee secrets

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UK researchers have used radar tracking - very small radar tracking - to help shed light on bumblebee navigation.

Since there's long been an obsession about the bumblebee's supposed inability to fly, getting them airborne with a backpack seems something of a feat. The results of the research, described in this PLOS article, could help humans find efficient solutions to the "travelling salesman" problem.

In computer science, that problem is classified as NP-hard - but solutions are valuable for everything from logistics to network topology.

The research, conducted by Lars Chittka at the University of London, used both the radar trackers and video footage to study how bumblebees optimised their routes between hives and nectar sources that the researchers moved once the subjects had their route worked out.

Route optimisation is important to bees, since they live on a delicate balance of the energy available for foraging and the return they get.

As this PLOS synopsis notes, bees seem to combine trial-and-error with memory to get the best route. Between their first and last attempts, the bumblebees were able to optimise their routes by around 80 percent.

While the researcher found that computers could (unsurprisingly) get the best "trapline", the bees came very close, and generally only needed to test around 20 of 120 possible routes to come up with a good result. "This tradeoff between perfection and speed highlights the differences between mathematical and biological solutions to the travelling salesman problem," the article notes. ®

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