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Bumble Bees: bumbling about until they get lucky

The word ‘bumble’ seems almost onomatopoeic. Bumble bees do rather seem to bumble, don’t they? Buzzing with wobbly wings from one flower to the next bobbing back and forth in the air like they’ve forgotten their glasses. They’re fat, and friendly, and pleasant to watch. While there can be something a little threatening about honeybees, and something very threatening about wasps, fat Mr Bumble seems like a pleasant sort.

Which is why it’s rather pleasing to learn that bumble bees figure out how to get about pretty much the exact same way that you or I or your doddery old uncle might: they go one way, and then if that doesn’t work, they try another.

This is actually all a little bit more scientifically significant than you might expect. We used to think that the brain capacity of a bee just wasn’t big enough for a complex cognitive process like trial and error – finding out that this isn’t the case might lead us to rethink the link between brain size and behavioural capacity.

Researchers made an artificial flower bed in a field one kilometre in diameter – and rigged the entire thing with webcams. Radar was laso used to track the bumbles as they buzzed between the flowers. By analysing their flight paths, the researchers could see that the bumble bees got slowly better at figuring out the quickest route to the sucrose-laden flowers.

Meaning that doddery old Mr Bumble might be a little bit smarter – but every bit as bumbling – as we thought.

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