Bees can create mental maps of landmarks to use for navigation, which is similar to how humans use GPS. A recent study showed that bees that were captured in the wild and taken far away were able to navigate their way home using a mental map of remembered landmarks rather than using the position of the sun. It has been known for some time that bees and other flying insects use the sun like a compass to navigate. This study, however, showed that when bees are disoriented so that cannot rely on the sun, they use a remembered map of landmarks to get back to their home hive.
The study was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the research team was led by Dr. Randolf Menzel, who is a neurobiologist at the Free University of Berlin. The researchers in the study employed a method that did not allow the bees to use the position of the sun to navigate. They gave the bees an anesthetic to put them to sleep after they were captured and were then taken to a distant location. This shifted their biological clock such that they misjudged the position of the sun, which then caused them to become lost, at least initially. The fact that the bees found their way back to their home hive anyway suggested that they were able to use remembered landmarks as a map for navigation.
Humans and other mammals are known to use cognitive maps to navigate. They can make a mental map to orient themselves in space relative to known objects in the world around them. For example, if someone living in Chicago is asked about where downtown is, most (but not all) can point in the right direction even though they may not be viewing the tall buildings along Lake Michigan at the time. This is possible because humans and other mammals have very large and complex brains that are equipped to process this kind of information.
However, the brain of a bee does not seem large enough to handle processing this type of information. The number of cells in a bee brain is relatively small compared to the trillions of cells that comprise the brain of a human. There are no known structures in the brain of a bee that match the structures in the human brain that are known to process mapping tasks. Yet the reported study showed that bees really do have GPS capabilities.
The navigation ability of bees has been a topic of study for many decades. One of the results from these studies is the knowledge that bees dance to tell other bees where to find nectar. This dancing to communicate direction to other bees has been called waggle dancing. This waggle dancing, however, indicates directions relative to the position of the sun, and does not indicate a mental map of spatial locations.
The study shows that tiny bee brains are more powerful than ever imagined. Bees may have better GPS capabilities than many humans, even when humans have the technology of GPS in their car.
By Margaret Lutze