Bees outsmart supercomputers
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One of the most fiendishly complex mathematical computations is the so-called ‘Travelling Salesman Problem’. Given a list of locations (e.g. cities) and the distances between them, it involves finding the shortest possible route in which each location is visited only once. As the number of locations increases past anything more than a handful, the complexity of the problem increases dramatically, to staggering proportions.
‘In nature, bees have to link hundreds of flowers in a way that minimises travel distance, and then reliably find their way home—not a trivial feat if you have a brain the size of a pinhead! Indeed such travelling salesmen problems keep supercomputers busy for days.’—Professor Lars Chittka, University of London
Such computations “keep supercomputers busy for days”, says Professor Lars Chittka, from the University of London.1 Yet scientists from that university, using artificial computer-generated flowers, have found that bees learn to solve such problems, in effect, and extremely quickly.2 They are the first animals found capable of this—and they solve it for hundreds of locations.
Chittka says that bees are able “to link hundreds of flowers in a way that minimises travel distance, and then reliably find their way home—not a trivial feat if you have a brain the size of a pinhead!” Using artificial computer-controlled flowers, the researchers found that bees can do this “even if they discover the flowers in a different order”.
Dr Mathieu Lihoreau, the co-author of the study, says this shows that, despite a limited number of nerve cells in their brains, bees obviously have “advanced cognitive capacities”. The researchers express the hope that one day it might be possible to understand how such amazing processing feats are achieved with such apparently minimal ‘hardware’.
But if the best computer hardware engineers and software programmers have yet to design a supercomputer that can match the bee’s “advanced” computative performance, let alone one with the space efficiency of a bee’s brain, what does that say about the bee’s designer? One doesn’t need to be good at mathematical computations to work that one out (Romans 1:20).
References and notes
- Tiny brained bees solve a complex mathematical problem, Queen Mary—University of London, www.qmul.ac.uk, 25 October 2010. Return to text.
- Lihoreau, M., Chittka, L., and Raine, N., Travel optimization by foraging bumblebees through readjustments of traplines after discovery of new feeding locations, The American Naturalist 176(6):744–757, 2010. Return to text.