After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

‘Making a Beeline’ Comes Naturally – to Bees

Posted on May 17, 2011
Filed Under Technology | Leave a Comment

It’s spring, and we’re called to note some of the wonders outside our window, like bees buzzing from blossom to blossom. They never seem to collide with anything, but always alight where they’re presumably headed. How do they do that?

It seems they have optic flow controllers that aviators envy. The website advises that a bee’s tiny brain gets input from a visual system that includes a dorsal, or overhead, view. As a bee flies, it gets inputs from the front to the back of its visual field, optic flows that are “defined as the angular speed of environmental contrasts passing through its visual field.” All that feedback in a bee’s nervous system of a hundred thousand to a million neurons. Talk about tight packaging!

French scientists built a bee flight chamber, pictured here, with a complex geometric shape intended to baffle the insects. “This flight chamber had several constrictions where the floor and ceiling, or the side walls, converged. The researches observed that a bee’s speed decreased in proportion to the narrowest point of passage in the flight chamber, whether the constriction was horizontal or vertical.

“In other words, a bee slows its flight speed as an obstacle gets closer….An ‘optic flow regulator’ model makes it possible to understand how a bee is able to fly without ever needing to measure its speed or its position from the walls and how it can do without traditional aerospace sensors, like Doppler radars, that give speed in relation to the ground.” Remarkable!

Collision-free bee flight illustrates a challenge in biorobotics, “both in fundamental and applied research. These findings could have aerospace applications, such as during the crucial phases when aircraft fly in confined environments.”

So, next time you see busy bees buzzing around bright-colored blossoms, remember that they have something to teach us that scientists and pilots would like greatly to master, on a much smaller scale than is possible now. – Doug Bedell


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