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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bees solve traveling salesman problem

The traveling salesman problem is a common mathematical exercise. The hypothetical salesman must take the shortest possible route to visit a number of customers. Most people use computers to figure out which route is the most economical, but Mathieu Lihoreau, Lars Chittka and Nigel Raine of Queen Mary University of London found that bees can do it just as well.

The researchers presented bees with four patches of flowers placed in a non-optimal order. If the bees chose to return to the flower patches in the order in which they first found those flowers, they’d be covering a much longer distance than if they could optimize their route. Not only could the bees quickly figure out the shortest route to all four flower patches, but the next day the bees remembered that optimal route. Apparently, bees are constantly calculating energy saving routes rather than simply retracing their flights to flower sources.

As Raine points out:

Despite their tiny brains bees are capable of extraordinary feats of behavior. We need to understand how they can solve the Traveling Salesman Problem without a computer. What short-cuts do they use?