In a nutshell: Bees use the speed at which images move across their eyes to control safe landing.

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When honeybees fly around from flower to flower, they control their flight speed so that the images of the world on their retinas move at a fixed speed. But why would they care what speed objects appear to be moving? It turns out that this is a great strategy for safe landing. When a bee moves towards a flower to land on it, the size of the flower expands on the retina as it gets closer. Keeping the speed of expansion constant on the retina results in the bee gradually and gently slowing down until it reaches a complete stop right as it lands.

Brain Function CoE researchers Michael Ibbotson and Hamish Meffin, and their colleagues in the USA, Germany, and Queensland, studied the brain circuits that allow for such a clever strategy for safe landing.

The team found brain cells in the bee that carry information about the speed of images to flight control centres in the body. These cells have all the necessary qualities to control bee landing strategies: they signal the direction in which objects around the bee move, they are fine-tuned to detect changes in speed, and their electrical activity is adequate to monitor the bee’s flight speed.

Bees can communicate to their hive mates the direction and distance of food sources through their waggle dance. Current theories propose that bees keep track of the distance travelled to a flower using this same ability to monitor the speed of images on the retina.

Next steps:
The team is exploring the idea of translating the strengths of the honeybee landing strategy for use in spacecraft and drones.

Ibbotson M. R., Hung Y. S., Meffin H., Böddeker N., & Srinivasan M. V. (2017). Neural basis of forward flight control and landing in honeybees. Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-14954-0

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