Bumblebees can fly sideways to fit through tight gaps

By Leah Crane

The bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Frank Bienewald / Alamy

Bumblebees change their flight patterns differently when they are forced to traverse a narrow space due to their size, which indicates that despite their simple nervous system, they have an idea of ​​their own size and shape.

To test whether bees are aware of their size, Sridhar Ravi from the University of New South Wales in Sydney and his colleagues connected four beehives with tunnels through which bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) had to fly to get food. Then they placed a wall in the middle of the tunnel, partially blocking it but leaving a gap for the bees to slide through.

As the bees flew against the wall, they scurried back and forth to get a better view of the gap, and then turned over to get through without beating their wings against the wall. The researchers observed 400 flights of the bees and found that the amount they tipped depended on the relative size of the gap and the bees – large bees going through small gaps even flew by on their sides.


“It’s not that they have a sense of themselves or recognize themselves in the mirror, but they seem to have a better sense of their own size and shape than we thought,” says Stacey Combes of the University of California in Davis.

This is similar to how humans and animals with more complex brains perceive the world, says William Warren of Brown University in Rhode Island. “When you look at a gap to walk through, calibrate this information to your own height. This underscores that there is some kind of universality in how the world is perceived, from insects to humans. “

It may seem like a no-brainer, but this is actually a surprisingly complex calculation that a simple animal is capable of, says Combes. “Children are sometimes scared of being in the bathtub when you open the drain because they’re afraid of going down the drain,” she says. “If human toddlers don’t understand how big they are compared to the world around them, it’s surprising that bees do.”

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.2016872117

Article changed on
November 24, 2020

We have corrected the bee species in the heading

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