How bees navigate: Cognitive dissonance

How bees navigate: Cognitive dissonance

Jun 12th 2014, 16:37 by P.H.| WASHINGTON D.C.

LIKE Winnie-the-Pooh, bees are creatures of very little brain—just half a millimetre across and with a million or so neurons; a rat’s is a cubic centimetre and has 200m. Bee brains also lack structures, such as the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, that play a vital role in forming the “cognitive maps” that help humans and other mammals find their way from A to B—even if point B isn’t initially visible. Yet bees routinely buzz off up to three kilometres (almost two miles) from their hives in their quest to make Pooh’s beloved ‘hunny’—and then make a beeline back. How?

Bees are much-studied insects, and there is controversy about how they navigate. When bees that are heading towards their hive are kidnapped, relocated to another place within their home “territory” and then released, they at first head in the same direction they were flying when captured—even if that is away from the hive they were flying towards. But they swiftly recognise their error, change course, and head hiveward. As a result, many bee scientists have concluded that the insects use a combination of sun-based internal compass and mental “snapshots” of familiar landmarks to find their way home. This explanation appeals, because it avoids the assumption that bees construct a cognitive map in order to navigate—something that should in theory be beyond their bee brains.

A team of researchers from Germany, America and New Zealand are unconvinced. For a bee’s sun-based compass to work, the insect must be able to compensate for changes in the sun’s direction throughout the day—something it does by referencing its own circadian clock. In the researchers’ experiments, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of bees were anaesthetised for several hours, shifting their biological clocks. They were relocated to a different spot within their territory and released when they awoke, together with a control group of undrugged bees. In one experiment the target hive was situated in a place with no obvious landmarks to give away its location. In a second, it was near a hedgerow the insects could see. In both cases, the bees were tracked by special radar, using tiny reflectors glued to their backs.

If the anaesthetised bees had been using a sun-based compass to navigate, they would have become completely lost on their release. And indeed, in the first experiment the drugged bees initially flew in the direction such a compass would have directed them a few hours earlier. But when they recognised their error, they rapidly adjusted their flight paths back towards their hives, arriving home as quickly and in roughly the same relative numbers as the control bees (a few from each group flew off). In the second experiment, both the drugged and control bees set off in the correct direction immediately. The insects, then, were able to get home using only the terrain as a guide, strongly suggesting that they too use cognitive maps to navigate.

Although extensive research proves that the hippocampus, entorhinal cortex and several other brain structures are involved in forming cognitive maps in mammals, exactly how these computations are made is not yet clear—and becomes even less so if such computations are also made in the very different and minuscule brain of a bee. Which raises several questions. How and where do the computations take place? Might they be performed within the neurons themselves, or are they a function of how neurons are connected? Perhaps entirely different structures perform them in insects? For now, nobody knows. But a bee of very little brain has raised some awfully big questions.



About bambooinnovator
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (, a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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