Bees inspire robot aircraft.


Scientists at Australia’s Vision Centre have discovered how the honeybee can land anywhere with utmost precision and grace – and the knowledge may soon help build incredible robot aircraft.

By sensing how rapidly their destination ‘zooms in’ as they fly towards it, honeybees can control their flight speed in time for a perfect touchdown without needing to know how fast they’re flying or how far away the destination is.

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This discovery may advance the design of cheaper, lighter robot aircraft that only need a video camera to land safely on surfaces of any orientation, says Professor Mandyam Srinivasan of The Vision Centre (VC) and The University of Queensland Brain Research Institute.

“Orchestrating a safe landing is one of the greatest challenges for flying animals and airborne vehicles,” says Prof. Srinivasan. “To achieve a smooth landing, it’s essential to slow down in time for the speed to be close to zero at the time of touchdown.”

Humans can find out their distance from an object using stereovision – because their two eyes, which are separated by about 65 mm, capture different views of the object. However, insects can’t do the same thing because they have close-set eyes, Prof. Srinivasan explains.

“So in order to land on the ground, they use their eyes to sense the speed of the image of the ground beneath them,” he says. “By keeping the speed of this image constant, they slow down automatically as they approach the ground, stopping just in time for touchdown.

“However, in the natural world, bees would only occasionally land on flat, horizontal surfaces. So it’s important to know how they land on rough terrain, ridges, vertical surfaces or flowers with the same delicacy and grace.”

In the study, the VC researchers trained honeybees to land on discs that were placed vertically, and filmed them using high speed video cameras.

“The boards carried spiral patterns that could be rotated at various speeds by a motor,” says Prof. Srinivasan. “When we spun the spiral to make it appear to expand, the bees ‘hit the brakes’ because they thought they were approaching the board much faster than they really were.

“When we spun the spiral the other way to make it appear to contract, the bees sped up, sometimes crashing into the disc. This shows that landing bees keep track of how rapidly the image ‘zooms in’, and they adjust their flight speed to keep this ‘zooming rate’ constant.”

“Imagine you’re in space and you don’t know how far away you are from a star,” Prof. Srinivasan says. “As you fly towards it, the other stars ‘move away’ and it becomes the focus. Then when the star starts to ‘zoom in’ faster than the regular rate, you’ll slow down to keep the ‘zooming rate’ constant.

“It’s the same for bees – when they’re about to reach a flower, the image of the flower will expand faster than usual. This causes them to slow down more and more as they get closer, eventually stopping when they reach it.”

The VC researchers also developed a mathematical model for guiding landings, based on the bees’ landing strategy. Prof. Srinivasan says unlike all current engineering-based methods, this visually guided technique does not require knowledge about the distance to the surface or the speed at which the surface is approached.

“The problem with current robot aircraft technology is they need to use radars or sonar or laser beams to work out how far the surface is,” Prof. Srinivasan says. “Not only is the equipment expensive and cumbersome, using active radiation can also give the aircraft away.

“On the other hand, this vision-based system only requires a simple video camera that can be found in smartphones. The camera, by ‘seeing’ how rapidly the image expands, allows the aircraft to land smoothly and undetected on a wide range of surfaces with the precision of a honeybee.”

Bee brains challenge view that larger brains are superior at understanding conceptual relationships.


The humble honeybee may not seem very intelligent at first sight, but recent research has shown that it possesses a surprising degree of sophistication that is not expected in an insect brain. Specifically, the honeybee can understand conceptual relationships such as “same/different” and “above/below” that rely on relationships between objects rather than simply the physical features of objects.

In primates, this ability to understand conceptual relationships is attributed to neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). However, honeybees don’t have PFCs. Their brains are so small and lacking in complex brain structures that scientists have traditionally thought that the ability to understand conceptual relationships was beyond them.

Scientists Aurore Avarguès-Weber and Martin Giurfa, both from the University of Toulouse and CNRS in Toulouse, France, have analyzed the implications of the honeybee’s ability to understand conceptual relationships, and have published a paper on the subject in a recent issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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“One thing that should be clear from this analysis is that, although it is always a matter of debate what is unique to humans and what to animals, these results show at least something that is not,” Giurfa told Phys.org. “While the capacity of conceptual elaboration has been considered (and is still considered) a higher-order capacity proper from primates and other ‘highly-evolved’ animals (the quotes are ironic in this case), the fact that a 950 000-neuron [honeybee] brain can achieve this kind of task shows that the frontier does not reside there.

“The obvious question would be then, what brings as advantage a 100-billion-neuron [human] brain? Obviously several advantages can be cited: language, for instance. Consciousness, whose existence is a matter of debate and of investigation in animals. And the idea that human brains have perhaps replicated redundant and modifiable modules to solve problems that small brains solve with single microcircuits at a smaller scale.”

Bee-friendly plants put to the test


Honeybee on lavender (c) Science Photo Library

Researchers have used an experimental garden to put pollinator-friendly plants to the test.

The University of Sussex scientists counted the number of insects visiting the plants in their garden.

They say their findings show that insect-friendly plants are just as pretty, cheap and easy to grow as less pollinator-friendly varieties.

Their results are published in the Journal of Functional Ecology.

PhD student Mihail Garbuzov used 32 different varieties of popular garden plants. These included some nectar-rich and highly scented plants he thought would be attractive to insects and some that seemed to be less attractive.

While the small-scale study did not produce an exhaustive list of the best plants for pollinating insects, the team says the data has put a number on just how many more pollinators the right plants can attract.

Mr Garbuzov told the BBC: “Some of the best plants attracted approximately 100 times as many insects as the worst.

“And the plants that are attractive to insects are not more expensive, and they’re just as pretty.”

The researchers wrote in their paper that there was “great scope for making gardens and parks more insect friendly” by selecting the right plants.

Tips for insect-friendly gardening are already available from a variety of sources, but the researchers say they are largely based on “opinion and general experience”.

The aim of this study, said Prof Francis Ratnieks, from the University of Sussex, was to “put that advice on a firmer scientific footing, by gathering information about the actual number of insects visiting the flowers to collect nectar or pollen”.

Counting bees

Honeybee on a flower (c) Ethel M Villalobos
  • Bees have different colour-detection systems from humans, and can see the world in ultraviolet. This helps them to detect the flowers they pollinate and take nectar from.
  • Pollination is essential for agriculture, as well as the reproduction of non-food flowers and plants. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, pollinators including bees, birds and bats are involved in more than a third of the world’s crop production.
  • Honeybees evolved to make honey as a food source for the colony. Selective breeding of European honeybees by humans has produced colonies that make excess honey for us to harvest.

The researchers gathered their data simply by visiting each of the patches of flowers every day over two summers and counting the number of insects on the flowers.

Their results did lead them to make some horticultural recommendations – they found that borage, lavender, marjoram and open-flower dahlias varieties were very good for insects.

The colourfully named bowles mauve everlasting wallflower was also very attractive to pollinators, while the least attractive flowering plant for insects was the very popular geranium.

Marjoram, the researchers say, was probably the best “all-rounder”, attracting honey bees, bumble bees, other bees, hover flies, and butterflies.

Borage was the best for honey bees and lavender and open-flowered dahlias were most attractive to bumblebees.

The team put a number of varieties of lavender to the test and found that highly bred hybrids, including some with novel colours – such as white or pink – that have been carefully bred into the plants proved the most attractive to insects.

Dr Nigel Raine, from Royal Holloway University of London, commented that with bee populations declining across the world, “we can all give bees a helping hand by planting the right flowers to give them the nectar and pollen they need”.

“This study highlights that it’s important for bee-friendly gardeners to choose what you plant with care,” he added.

“Gardeners and town planners should think carefully about the mixture of flowers they plant to ensure food is available for a wide range of bees and other important insect pollinators.

“It’s also important to cater for the needs of the rarer species and provide food at times when there might be fewer wild flowers in bloom.”

In another prior study, a team from the University of California San Diego used this ‘taste test’ to work out if bees are able to detect the scent of a flower. If the bee detects a floral scent, it will stick out its tongue.

Beepocalypse Redux: Honeybees Are Still Dying — and We Still Don’t Know Why.


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The honeybees are dying — and we don’t really know why. That’s the conclusion of a massive Department of Agriculture (USDAreport that came out late last week on colony-collapse disorder (CCD), the catchall term for the large-scale deaths of honeybee groups throughout the U.S. And given how important honeybees are to the food that we eat — bees help pollinate crops that are worth more than $200 billion a year — the fact that they are dying in large numbers, and we can’t say why, is very, very worrying.

CCD was first reported in 2006, when commercial beekeepers began noticing that their adult worker honeybees would suddenly flee the hive, ending up dead somewhere else and leading to the rapid loss of the colony. On normal years, commercial beekeepers might expect to lose 10% to 15% of their colony, but over the past five years, mortality rates for commercial operations in the U.S. have ranged from 28% to 33%. Since 2006 an estimated 10 million beehives worth about $200 each have been lost, costing beekeepers some $2 billion. There are now 2.5 million honeybee colonies in the U.S., down from 6 million 60 years ago. And if CCD continues, the consequences for the agricultural economy — and even for our ability to feed ourselves — could be dire. “Currently, the survivorship of honeybee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops,” the USDA report said.

So what’s causing CCD — and how can we stop it?

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a single smoking gun behind CCD. The USDA report points at a range of possible causes, including:

  • A parasitic mite called Varroa destructor that has often been found in decimated colonies
  • Several viruses
  • A bacterial disease called European foulbrood that is increasingly being detected in U.S. bee colonies
  • The use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, a neuroactive chemical

Since CCD isn’t so much a single disease as it is a collection of symptoms, chances are that some or all of these factors, working in concert, might be behind the disappearance of the honeybees. The presence of the Varroa mite, for instance, can worsen the impact of existing viruses, while the stress of shipping bees back and forth across the country — increasingly common in commercial beekeeping — may be amplifying the stress on the insects and leaving them more vulnerable to CCD. (If you think a cross-country flight is rough on you, just imagine what it’s like for a honeybee hive.) The fact that CCD is increasingly seen in other countries as well gives more weight to the notion that there may be multiple factors at work.

Still, environmentalists have focused most on the potential role of pesticides — especially the powerful neonicotinoids — and some lab studies have found that the chemicals can adversely affect bee health. It’s not that the pesticides — which are aimed at other insects — are killing the bees outright, but rather that sublethal exposure in nectar and pollen may be interfering with the honeybees’ internal radar, preventing them from gathering pollen and returning safely to the hive.

The USDA report mostly withholds judgment on neonicotinoids, citing the need for more research, and the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a very slow review of the evidence. Last week, though, the E.U., which is also grappling with CCD, decided it was done waiting, and announced a two-year ban on neonicotinoids. The European Commission enacted the ban on the recommendation of the European Food Safety Authority, which said in January that the pesticides should be restricted until scientists had cleared the chemicals of a role in CCD.

The chemical industry, unsurprisingly, disputes the finding. Bayer CropScience, a major pesticide manufactuer, said in a statement after the ban was announced:

As a science-based company, Bayer CropScience is disappointed that clear scientific evidence has taken a backseat in the decisionmaking process. This disproportionate decision is a missed opportunity to reach a solution that takes into consideration all of the existing product-stewardship measures and broad stakeholder concerns. The further reduction of effective crop-protection products will put at risk farmers’ ability to tackle important pests that can severely restrict their ability to grow high-quality food.

As Brad Plumer pointed out over at the Washington Post, it’s not that the E.U. necessarily has more evidence about the role that the chemicals might be playing in CCD. This is a classic case of policymaking by the precautionary principle. The pesticides are considered guilty until proven innocent, and so they’re preventively banned, even before the scientific case is rock solid. That’s not unusual for European environmental regulation, especially in regard to chemicals. In the U.S. it’s the reverse — before the federal government is likely to take the step of banning a class of pesticides, and pissing off the multibillion-dollar chemical industry, you’re likely to see a lot more science done.

So what we may get in Europe and the U.S. is a de facto field test of the real impact of neonicotinoids on CCD. In two years, if American bees are still dying and their European cousins are thriving, we might just have our answers. And if not, well, I hope you don’t like cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, chestnuts, watermelons, cucumber, fennel, strawberries, macadamia, mangoes, apricots, almonds or any of the other dozens of food crops pollinated by our hardworking, six-legged, unpaid farmworkers.

Source: Time.com

 

 

Pesticides are Killing More Than Bees – They’re Killing Humans.


bees-flowersThat’s just one example of how the ecological balance can be interrupted. Why is this happening? Several factors have been identified, including:

One poignant example of the pesticide problem comes with a lawsuit filed by The German Coalition against Bayer Dangers against Werner Wenning, chairman of the Bayer Board of Management, after losing thousands of hives due to poisoning by the pesticide clothianidin. Bayer was accused of marketing dangerous pesticides that allegedly caused the mass death of bees all over the world. In fact, apple orchards require at least one bee colony for every acre to be adequately pollinated. So, unless this devastating trend is reversed, the world could be in for some major food shortages.

Even more alarming may be the rate at which wild bees are dropping from sight, particularly regarding crop yields, according to a worldwide study.6 Coffee, onions, almonds, tomatoes and strawberries were among 40 fruits and vegetables in 600 fields examined by scientists to determine which would win the pollination race. The report returned that wild bees were twice as effective as honey bees in this endeavor.7

Scientists studied the pollination of more than 40 crops in 600 fields across every populated continent and found wild pollinators were twice as effective as honey bees in producing seeds and fruit on crops including oilseed rape, coffee, onions, almonds, tomatoes and strawberries. Furthermore, trucking in managed honey bee hives did not replace wild pollination when that was lost, but only added to the pollination that took place.8

One of every three bites of food you eat depends on the honey bee. They pollinate at least 130 different crops in the US alone, including fruits, vegetables and tree nuts. That bees can actually sense and respond to electrical fields emitted by flowering plants is remarkable, says bee biologist and author Mark Winston from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. He adds:

[B]ees perceive the world around them, and it adds another wonderful story that continues to deepen our understanding the co-evolved relationship between bees and flowers.”

Only a change in the status quo will cause a turnaround of this tragic situation that threatens not only bees all over the world, but the world’s entire, increasingly unsustainable food system.

Source: mercola.com