Tiny-brained bees beat computers to solve math problem

Despite having a brain the size of a grass seed, bumblebees can solve a complex mathematical problem which keeps computers busy for days.

British scientists have discovered that bees can solve the ‘Traveling Salesman’ problem and learn to fly the shortest possible route between flowers, even if they discover the flowers in a different order. They are the first animals found to do this.

The Traveling Salesman must find the shortest route that allows him to visit all locations on his route. Computers solve it by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest. However, bees solve it without computer assistance.

“Foraging bees solve travelling salesman problems every day,” says Dr Nigel Raine of Royal Holloway. “They visit flowers at multiple locations and, because bees use lots of energy to fly, they find a route which keeps flying to a minimum.”

The team used computer-controlled artificial flowers to test whether bees would follow a route defined by the order in which they discovered the flowers or whether they’d find the shortest route. They found that after exploring the location of the flowers, bees quickly learned to fly the shortest route.

The work has implications beyond enhancing understanding of bees. It could improve the management of networks such as traffic on the roads, information flow on the web and business supply chains, without needing lots of computer time.

“Despite their tiny brains, bees are capable of extraordinary feats of behaviour,” says Raine. “We need to understand how they can solve the Traveling Salesman problem without a computer. What short-cuts do they use?”