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PLoS Biol. 2004 Jul;2(7):E211. Epub 2004 Jul 13.

Honeybee odometry: performance in varying natural terrain.

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Beegroup Würzburg, Lehrstuhl für Verhaltensphysiologie und Soziobiologie, Würzburg, Germany.


Recent studies have shown that honeybees flying through short, narrow tunnels with visually textured walls perform waggle dances that indicate a much greater flight distance than that actually flown. These studies suggest that the bee's "odometer" is driven by the optic flow (image motion) that is experienced during flight. One might therefore expect that, when bees fly to a food source through a varying outdoor landscape, their waggle dances would depend upon the nature of the terrain experienced en route. We trained honeybees to visit feeders positioned along two routes, each 580 m long. One route was exclusively over land. The other was initially over land, then over water and, finally, again over land. Flight over water resulted in a significantly flatter slope of the waggle-duration versus distance regression, compared to flight over land. The mean visual contrast of the scenes was significantly greater over land than over water. The results reveal that, in outdoor flight, the honeybee's odometer does not run at a constant rate; rather, the rate depends upon the properties of the terrain. The bee's perception of distance flown is therefore not absolute, but scene-dependent. These findings raise important and interesting questions about how these animals navigate reliably.

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