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Bees Use Both Sight and Sense To Fly Efficiently

By Alan Harman
Honey bees use a combination of what they feel and see to streamline their bodies and gain maximum ‘fuel efficiency’ during flight. Bees use their antennae as well as their eyes to calculate the best position for swift flight, scientists at the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Vision Science (Vision Center) say in a new report.

Prof. Mandyam Srinivasan of the Vision Center and the University of Queensland’s Brain Research Institute says honey bees often have to travel very long distances with only a small amount of nectar, so they have to be as fuel-efficient as possible. “They achieve this by raising their abdomen to reduce drag so they can fly at high speeds while using less energy,” Srinivasan said.

Colleague Gavin Taylor says previous research has found that honey bees use their eyes to sense the airspeed and move their abdomens accordingly. “When we trick a honey bee into thinking that it’s ‘flying’ forward by running background images past its eyes, the bee will move its body into a flying position despite being tethered,” Taylor says.
“The faster we move the images, the higher it lifts its abdomen to prepare for rapid flight. However, if we blow wind directly at them without running any images, the bee raises its abdomen for only a little while. This means that they rely on their vision to regulate their flights.”

The Vision Center researchers have further unraveled the honey bee’s flight secrets by adding airflow to the bee’s environment. “We created a headwind and ran background images simultaneously,” Taylor says. “We found that when the fan is turned on, the bee raises its abdomen much higher than when the fan is switched off. “This shows that while bees need to see to adjust their abdomens during flight, their streamlining response is also driven by airflow.” Srinivasan says the honey bee senses airflow with its antenna. “As soon as we immobilized the bee’s antenna, its streamlining response was reduced as it relied only on its eyes. “The bee uses its antenna to do many wonderful things – it tastes food with it, senses the vibration in the air when other bees dance, and now we know they also use it to regulate their flights by detecting wind speed.”

Taylor says using information from several senses to control their flight is more effective as it helps bees respond more quickly to changes in the environment. “For instance, their antennae can detect a change in the airflow, such as sudden gusts of wind, allowing them to adjust their bodies and speed. This is something that their vision can’t do as their eyes might not ‘see’ the wind.”