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
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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