Mallika Venkatramani discusses a recent study which shows that bees have a bias for flying left or right, allowing for efficient swarm flight.
Do you remember how being left handed had a “cool” factor back in school? Have you ever tried to become ambidextrous? Our fascination with handedness has led some researchers to discover its presence in other species as well. Professor Mandyam Srinivasan and his research team from the University of Queensland, Australia, have recently made an interesting discovery on this front. They found that individual honeybees have a bias for flying left or right.
In their experiment, 102 foraging bees were made to fly through a 120cm tunnel with an obstacle consisting of two holes of adjustable sizes at the centre. Initially, the researchers observed that when the holes were of different sizes, 80% of the bees flew through the larger hole. However, when the holes were made the same size, an interesting pattern was found. By tracking individual bees, the researchers discovered that 45% of the bees were consistently biased towards flying through either the left or the right hole. The remaining 55% showed no preference.
“They discovered that a bee spent more time completing the flight if it had to decide to fly through the smaller hole following its favoured direction.”
The researchers then focused their study on the direction-biased bees, making them fly through the tunnel when the holes were of unequal size. They discovered that a bee spent more time completing its flight if it had to decide to fly through the smaller hole following its favoured direction. Bees finished the course a lot quicker if their preferred side was the one with the bigger hole.
The study also discussed the idea that preference for direction allows bee swarms to strategise their flight paths. When passing through a dense thicket with only two openings, for example, it is more efficient for a swarm to channel its flight through both of the openings instead of having all the members crowding to fly through one. According to Srinivasan, by applying honeybees’ blueprint of flight, humans could improve technologies for organising swarms of manmade drones.
“According to Srinivasan, by applying honeybees’ blueprint of flight, humans could improve technologies for organising swarms of manmade drones.”
One of his previous studies showed that birds tend to fly right to avoid crashing into one-another. He said that such a tactic could be employed to create anti-crash mechanisms for aircraft. Looking beyond birds and bees, animals like Rhesus monkeys and marmosets have also displayed handedness. More research in this area could enable us to extend useful strategies used by animals to man-made systems.