Observing a honeybee flitting quickly from flower to flower in a garden, the degree of mastery the bee possesses in landing and taking off looks like it is easy to accomplish.

This is an illusion. The landing and take-off of a bee on flowers is much more challenging than it looks.

Bees rely on many skills for their piloting, not the least of which is using optic flow to help them to navigate and decelerate by gauging how fast things are moving into and out of their field of vision.

Flying drone robots reveal that bees use intuition and learned skills to decide how to land safely on a flower.  

Bees also encode spatial information they have gleaned in their waggle dance. The foraging bee wishes to recruit her non-foraging hive sisters by letting them know how far they must go to access a promising new feeding habitat. These waggle dancers evaluate the direction and distance by retinal image flow while on their way to the destination.

This means that if they are foraging food in a short, narrow tunnel, they will dance as if the food source is much farther away because they visually misread or misinterpret distances, since the closed tunnel walls increase optic flow.

Here is a 4:03-minute video by Dr. Qin’s Classroom that is a totally unrelated example of optic flow as we humans relate to it, to give you an idea of how a bee navigates:



How does a hive mate interpret such a dance? A study conducted by H.E. Esch, S. Zhang, M.V. Srinivasan and J. Tautz two decades ago that appears in the National Library of Medicine indicates that the bees search outside in the direction of the tunnel at exaggerated distances and not inside the tunnel where the foragers were active. The waggle dances need to convey information about the direction of the food habitat and the total amount of image motion en route to the food source. Waggle dances do not translate into absolute distances.

This 14:54-minute unrelated video by TedxUQ Talk features Dr. M.V. Srinivasan, one of the authors of that study. It is very insightful about the general concept: “From Birds to Bees to ‘Bots: What Can Robots Learn from Nature?”



The study also revealed that perceived distances on multiple outdoor routes from the same hive could be very different. Navigation errors are rare since both the forager and the recruited bee will fly in the same direction.