21 Dec 2017

Brisbane researchers discover bees can be left or right-handed

A Queensland researcher has discovered that bees, like humans, are left or right-handed.

Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, from the University of Queensland's Brain Institute, was studying how honeybees avoid colliding in mid-air when he noticed they favoured a side.

He observed that individually, bees distinctly chose between "left and right-handedness" when flying through obstacles.

"When bees try to decide between two different routes to take, some bees are consistently right-handed. Others tended to choose the left route or are left-handed," Professor Srinivasan said.

"Others were ambidextrous and could choose either one, which is unlike humans, who are mostly right-handed.

"The numbers were split evenly in those three groups, which was very interesting and unusual."

Using an All-Weather Bee Flight Facility for testing

Professor Srinivasan's research involved enticing the bees into a testing apparatus, using sugar water.

"We used a tunnel in which the bees fly into, and half way down the tunnel they encounter a wall which has two apertures — one on the left side and one on the right side," he told ABC Radio Brisbane.

"It's an AWBFF: All-Weather Bee Flight Facility.

"We filmed them and then monitored which side the bees chose as they were flying through."

Professor Srinivasan had previously conducted research on birds, discovering they do not crash in flight as they veered right.

"With bees it's different," he said.

"We wanted to see what happens in a swarm of bees; if they were to go through the forest, how would each bee decide which vantage to take.

"If bees had different biases it ensures that the whole swarm goes through the forest as quickly as possible."

He said the research also found that bees could discriminate the widths of oncoming gaps and choose the passage that was quicker to fly through.

How honeybees will aid drones

The discovery is set to help create strategies for steering drone aircraft fleets.

"I have an engineer that's always looking towards nature for inspiration," Professor Srinivasan said.

"Whatever we learn helps with designing aircraft, so they can navigate effectively without GPS.

"What we're thinking might be interesting is to see if a fleet of drones can navigate through a cluttered environment the same way bees might.

"We could then program the drones so that some have left or right bias and some without bias, and they will self-organise without a higher-level controller."

The research has been published in PLOS One.

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