November 28, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Bumblebees Pack Aerodynamic Sophistication into One Gram

Bumblebees seem self-aware of their dimensions so that they can navigate tight spaces during flight.

To know whether they can make it through a narrow space, a flyer has to be aware of its own size. Dramatic videos of humans in wingsuits show that they had to know ahead of time if their body and outstretched arms could make it through clefts in the rock. This ability has also been found in the humble bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) by researchers in Australia who tested the insects in laboratory conditions. New Scientist says that they can one-up the wingsuit flyers by tilting their bodies to make it through tight gaps.

As the bees flew up to the wall, they flitted back and forth to get a better look at the gap and then tilted themselves over to get through without smashing their wings into the wall. The researchers observed 400 flights by the bees and found the amount that they tilted depended on the relative sizes of the gap and the bees – large bees going through small gaps even flew through on their sides.

Bumblebee and iris (DFC)

Bumblebees weigh 0.8 gram at most; many are half a gram. The researchers publishing their results in PNAS seemed amazed that creatures this small, with neural systems packed into a tinier brain, were capable of this degree of aerobatic sophistication. The paper starts with a statement of the finding’s significance:

Like many other animals, including humans, insects frequently move through densely cluttered environments to perform activities critical for their survival, such as foraging. Vertebrates avoid collisions by perceiving their surroundings in relation to their body size and form, but it is unknown whether insects, with much smaller brains, possess such skills. We discovered that flying bumblebees judge the gap between obstacles relative to their wingspan and reorient themselves to fly sideways through tight spaces. Our findings suggest that bees too evaluate the affordance of their surroundings and account for their own size and form to safely navigate through complex environments.

The observation “poses questions about the neural requisites for perception of self-size in animals,” they say. They do not speculate on how such an ability evolved. Leah Crane at New Scientist says this is no small feat.

It may seem like a no-brainer, but this is actually a surprisingly complex calculation for a simple animal to be capable of, says Combes. “Kids are sometimes scared to be in the bathtub when you open up the drain because they’re scared to go down the drain,” she says. “If human toddlers don’t have that understanding of how big they are compared to the world around them, it’s surprising that bees do.

Lead author Sidney Ravi at the University of New South Wales thinks that designers of next-generation robotic drones could learn from bumblebees. writes,

Insects are fantastic models for robots because they have exceedingly small brains and yet they’re able to perform overly complex tasks. Over thousands of years nature has coded insects with some amazing attributes. Our challenge now is to see how we can take this and apply a similar coding to future robotic systems, enhancing their performance in the natural world,” Dr. Ravi said.

Ravi and the other team members were amazed at what they witnessed.

Nature didn’t code this ability in bees; God did. Nature doesn’t know anything about codes. Codes require intention and design. It’s notable that Ravi said this natural coding occurred “over thousands of years” rather than millions.




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