Bumblebees regularly tackle the Travelling Salesman Problem to improve their foraging routes, a skill that promises to yield solutions in the fields of robotics and logistics

  • 11
  • DEC
  • 2017

Few people draw a parallel between bumblebees and travelling salesmen but that’s what comes after months of tracking the flight paths of the pollinators as they forage for food in and around an array of artificial flowers in the fields within Rothamsted Research.

Bees, like those archetypal salesmen it seems, refine their routes around multiple destinations and, in the process, provide insights into analogous problems in logistics and robotics and into how land might be used more efficiently, reveals research published today in Scientific Reports.

“We tempted the bees with shortcuts between feeding stations that increased the total distance they travelled to visit all the feeders,” says Joe Woodgate, lead author from Queen Mary University of London, which drew on Rothamsted’s technical expertise as well as its landscape for the research.

“We then watched as they explored different flight paths around the feeders and developed habitual routes,” notes Woodgate, who is a postdoctoral researcher in QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

The team found that, initially, the bees often fell for the trick, opting for short-term gain over long-term pain. But they gradually refined their flight paths, reducing their overall travel distance, though without ever visiting the feeders in the best possible order.

Bumblebee at Rothamsted. News 11 Dec 2017. Credit: James Makinson, QMULLightweight transponders allow bumblebees to be tracked as they forage at feeding stations

“In this study, we took the unusual step of following individuals continuously as they gradually developed solutions to a spatial problem; previous work relied on only a few snapshots of the bees’ activity,” notes Woodgate.

He adds: “The result is one of the largest and most complete datasets on bee flight ever recorded and provides an in-depth look at route development for the first time ever.”

The team used harmonic radar to track 6 bumblebees making 201 flights in total; a tiny transponder on the bee doubles the frequency of the incoming signal to the next harmonic so that the reflected signals from the bee can be distinguished from reflections from elsewhere

“We tracked every single foraging flight that the bees undertook as they learned about the feeder array, with the radar telling us the position of the bee every three seconds, to an accuracy of 2 metres,” says Woodgate.

He adds: “Animals cannot inspect a map to find out where the best food sources are or plan how to get to them; instead, they must explore the landscape, discovering locations one by one, and then they face the challenge of integrating their spatial memories into an efficient route.

“Only by following the flight paths of bees as they explore and try to generate better routes can we start to truly understand how animals solve route optimisation problems.”

Bumblebee at Rothamsted. News 11 Dec 2017. Credit: Joseph Woodgate, QMULHarmonic radar technology at Rothamsted can monitor small insects even in cluttered environments

The radar tracks have yielded videos, in the form of animated heatmaps, that show the routes taken by the bees as they foraged. These heatmaps demonstrate graphically how some segments of route became habitual while other explorations were forgotten as preferred flight paths evolved.

“Understanding how small-brained animals like bees find efficient rules-of-thumb to accomplish complex and flexible behaviours has great potential to inform the development of AI and advanced robots,” says James Makinson, co-author and Woodgate’s fellow postgraduate researcher at QMUL.

“It’s also important to understand how bees and other pollinating insects search for food and use the landscape,” notes Makinson. Such knowledge, he says, “is crucial to managing the risks to pollinator services posed by habitat loss and agricultural intensification.”

Pollinator services are threatened by intensification, fragmentation and habitat loss, says Andy Reynolds, theoretical physicist at Rothamsted and the team’s data analyst. “Accessing and forecasting these risks requires an understanding of how pollinators use the landscape.”

The global economic value of ecosystem services is worth around 10% of global food production, or over $200 billion, says Jason Lim, the team’s senior electronics and radar engineer at Rothamsted: “The need to understand the movement of both migratory insect pests and pollinators is more important than ever if agricultural production is going to feed a human population of 10 billion by 2050.”

For images, videos, research paper and accompanying material, see lead author’s DropBox link.

Queen Mary University of London contact:
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Tel: +44 (0) 20 7882 3004

About Queen Mary University of London:
Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) is one of the UK's leading universities with 23,120 students representing more than 160 nationalities. A member of the Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research. In the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, we were placed ninth in the UK amongst multi-faculty universities (Research Excellence Framework 2014). As well as our main site at Mile End – which is home to one of the largest self-contained residential campuses in London – we have campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square, and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine and dentistry, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Queen Mary began life as the People’s Palace, a Victorian philanthropic project designed to bring culture, recreation and education to the people of the East End. We also have roots in Westfield College, one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women; St Bartholomew’s Hospital, one of the first public hospitals in Europe; and The London, one of England’s first medical schools. Today, as well as retaining these close connections to our local community, we are known for our international collaborations in both teaching and research.

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.