Home > Papers from 2013 > Bumblebee Learning Flights

Bumblebee Learning Flights

In one of the more famous insect navigation experiments, Tinbergen placed a ring of pine-cones around the nest of a digger-wasp. Upon exiting the nest, the wasp noticed the world had changed and performed a series of loops and arcs – a learning flight. Tinbergen showed the efficacy of such flights for visual learning by moving the pine cones before the wasps return, a manipulation that caused the wasp to search for the now missing nest entrance at the centre of the pine-cone ring. So despite knowing the function of learning flights for decades we still know little about the mechanisms that link learning flights to visual homing.
Across a pair of papers, Philippides & Collett et al. have analysed in detail the learning and return flights of individual bumblebees in order to uncover the sensori-motor connections between them. On the outward and inward flights bees show lots of loops and zig-zags respectively, with bees flying towards the nest in the middle of loops and at the turns of zigzags. This and other parallels between loops and zigzags suggest that they are stable variations of an underlying pattern. The second paper shows that bees tend to start a loop or zigzag when flying within a restricted range of compass directions which simplifies the set of possible views of the world and perhaps makes the process more robust.
 Bumblebee calligraphy: the design and control of flight motifs in the learning and return flights of Bombus terrestris
Andrew Philippides, Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, Olena Riabinina, and Thomas S. Collett
J Exp Biol 2013 216:1093-1104.

Coordinating compass-based and nest-based flight directions during bumblebee learning and return flights
Thomas S. Collett, Natalie Hempel de Ibarra, Olena Riabinina, and Andrew Philippides
J Exp Biol 2013 216:1105-1113.

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