Researchers have long marveled at the complex navigation abilities of bees. [click image to enlarge]. Bees, like birds and butterflies, use the Sun as a compass for navigation, whereas mammals typically find their way by remembering familiar landmarks on a continuous mental map. However, the latest research suggests that bees also use this type of map, despite their much smaller brain size. The work adds a new dimension to complex bee-navigation abilities that have long captivated researchers. “The surprise comes for many people that such a tiny little brain is able to form such a rich memory described as a cognitive map,” says co-author Randolf Menzel, a neurobiologist at the Free University of Berlin.
The research by Menzel and his team, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, demonstrates that bees can find their way back to their hives without relying solely on the Sun. Instead, they seem to use a 'cognitive map' that is made up of memorized landscape snapshots that direct them home.
The cognitive map used by mammals is thought to originate in the brain’s hippocampus. Humans employ such maps on a daily basis; for example, even in a windowless office, many people can point towards their home, orienting themselves in space based on knowledge of their location relative to the outside world.
“They can point to their home generally even though they can’t see it, even along a path through a wall that they haven’t travelled,” explains Fred Dyer, a behavioural biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who was not involved in the research. The study authors argue that bees can do something similar, albeit on a much more rudimentary level.