Honeybees Have Individual Flying Direction Preferences, New Study Finds

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) have individually distinct biases in ‘left- and right-handedness’ when flying through obstacles, according to new research from the University of Queensland’s Brain Institute, Australia.

According to Ong et al, honeybees have individual flying direction preferences. Image credit: Walter Bichler.

According to Ong et al, honeybees have individual flying direction preferences. Image credit: Walter Bichler.

“Our study showed that honeybees displayed handedness that varied from individual to individual,” said Professor Mandyam (Srini) Srinivasan, corresponding author of the study.

“Unlike humans, who are mostly right-handed, some bees display a strong left bias, others a strong right bias, and yet others a weak or zero bias.”

Professor Srinivasan and colleagues studied the flying decisions made by foraging honeybees when they encountered a barrier that could be traversed by flying through one of two apertures.

The insects were able to discriminate the widths of oncoming gaps and choose the passage that was presumably safer and quicker to fly through.

“When the apertures were equally wide, both apertures were chosen with equal frequency and about 55% of the bees displayed no side bias in their choices,” Professor Srinivasan said.

Half the remaining 45% preferred the left gap and half preferred the right gap.

When the gaps were of different width, the honeybees preferred the wider opening, and that preference increased sharply in line with the difference in aperture width.

The team confirmed the existence of individual biases by measuring the flight times of biased bees, noting a bee took longer to make a decision if its intrinsic bias was toward the side with the narrower opening.

“We believe these individual biases help to improve the flight efficiency of a swarm of bees through densely cluttered environments,” Professor Srinivasan said.

“Flying insects constantly face the challenge of choosing efficient, safe and collision-free routes while navigating through dense foliage. This finding could potentially be used as strategy for steering a fleet of drone aircraft.”

The team’s findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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M. Ong et al. 2017. Obstacle traversal and route choice in flying honeybees: Evidence for individual handedness. PLoS ONE 12 (11): e0184343; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0184343

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