One of the most fiendishly complex mathematical computations is the so-called ‘Travelling Salesman Problem’. Given a list of locations (e.g. cities) and the distances between them, it involves finding the shortest possible route in which each location is visited only once. As the number of locations increases past anything more than a handful, the complexity of the problem increases dramatically, to staggering proportions.

Such computations “keep supercomputers busy for days”, says Professor Lars Chittka, from the University of London.1 Yet scientists from that university, using artificial computer-generated flowers, have found that bees learn to solve such problems, in effect, and extremely quickly.2 They are the first animals found capable of this—and they solve it for hundreds of locations.

Chittka says that bees are able “to link hundreds of flowers in a way that minimises travel distance, and then reliably find their way home—not a trivial feat if you have a brain the size of a pinhead!” Using artificial computer-controlled flowers, the researchers found that bees can do this “even if they discover the flowers in a different order”.

Dr Mathieu Lihoreau, the co-author of the study, says this shows that, despite a limited number of nerve cells in their brains, bees obviously have “advanced cognitive capacities”. The researchers express the hope that one day it might be possible to understand how such amazing processing feats are achieved with such apparently minimal ‘hardware’….

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