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Scientists prove bees make mental maps

Similar flight speed and accuracy of bees with (red) and without (blue) clock-shifting.
Cheeseman et al. Free access per authors and PNAS.

Previous theory indicated that bees oriented themselves only by noting their relative position to the Sun. New research shows that bees produce cognitive maps of the area they inhabit much like mammals do. The research was conducted led by James F. Cheeseman from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and colleagues from New Zealand, Germany, and the United States. The study was presented in the June 2, 2014, edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers compared the time to find the nest and the distance traveled between a release point and the nest between a group of control honeybees and a group of honeybees that had received a fast-acting anesthetic. The anesthetic served to disorient the bee’s circadian clock by six hours so that the test bees were not dependent on the position of the Sun as a means of finding a location. Both groups of bees were tracked by radar with transponders fixed to each bee’s thorax.

The bees that received anesthetic took 14 seconds longer to reach the nest than the control group of bees. The bees that received anesthetic traveled an average of 287 meters more than the control bees. The circadian clock-altered group of bees all began their light home on a wrong course but quickly altered their direction to the nest. The additional time and distance traveled is indicative of the initially wrong direction the anesthetized bees took.

The study results indicate that bees keep a mental map of their location like mammals. While the researchers cannot directly name the objects that bees orient on to find their orientation, the study does indicate that the position of the Sun is not the only factor that allows bees to orient themselves to their environment. This is the first evidence that shows bee’s brains are capable of forming and retaining images of their environment for a long period of time.