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Making a beeline

Posted Aug 01 2011 10:37am

Watching a pollen-covered bumblebee assaulting one of my sunflowers at the weekend, I was reminded of a remarkable paper in July’s J Exp Biol, which has attracted three evaluations . Tien Luu and colleagues in Queensland, Australia, built what is essentially a fully immersive flight simulator for bees, and discovered something very interesting about their flight.

By tethering a honey bee and filming it while playing a simulation of the world going past, the researchers were able, for the first time ever, to capture high resolution video of bees in flight. The optical simulation convinces the bee that she is flying, and so she behaves as if she is flying. And as she flies “faster,” she raises her abdomen to become more streamlined, or aerodynamic.

Covered in bees

from 10.1242/ jeb.050310

Amusingly, the bee didn’t fly when her scenery moved forward–bees can’t fly backwards, it appears. Less amusingly, the tethering seems to be irreversible. That seems a bit of a shame–after all, bees are useful creatures and make honey of course, which we steal from them. The authors say that their work demonstrates the “importance of using panoramic stimulation for the study of visually guided flight in insects”, and add that this technique reveals which parts of the visual feed are important to the bee for assessing how fast she is flying. The result is that the bee seems to be most sensitive to lateral movement (in terms of assessing flight velocity), out of the corner of her eye, if you like. Which you might expect; it’s easier to judge the speed of something when you’re looking perpendicularly rather than head-on.

(The flight-sim wonk in me is, frankly, drooling at the thought of being in a panoramic simulation. Maybe without the iron bar superglued to my head, though.)

Finally, Martin Giurfa points out that the bee in the movie defecates just after she raises the flaps, sorry, “adopts the streamlining response”. This corresponds to bee foraging in the natural world, further validating the value of the virtual, visual world the researchers have created. And of course, for full aerodynamic efficiency, you want to reduce weight as well as drag. Clever bees.

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