How do honeybees calibrate their odometer?

It has been known for many years that honeybees can measure the distance they have flown between their hive and a foraging site. Moreover, they can communicate this to other bees in the hive through a waggle dance, helping them to find the food source as well. In 2000, Mandyam V. Srinivasan and his colleagues showed that honeybees use the optical bypassing of the environment to measure the distance. In an elegant series of experiments Srinivasan’s group trained bees to fly through narrow 6m long tunnels with optical patterns. This caused the honeybees to massively overestimate the distance between hive and food source, communicating to other bees a distance of 200 m.

This may be seen just as elegant academic science, but it was used by Srinivasan’s group to generate algorithms that allow a helicopter to fly without a pilot. Flying robots inspired by insect navigation!

This article is one of a set featuring the achievements and memorable occasions in the History of Biology at ANU.