Kidnapped, drugged, and left abandoned in a field, bees can still find their way home using mental maps of their surroundings, according to a new study that could pose a major challenge to current thinking about human memory and cognition. Curious to know more about the insects’ navigational abilities, a team of biologists and psychologists fit 57 bees with radio transponders to track their paths and then trained them to find a feeder 300 meters from their hive. Once the insects knew the route, the researchers captured the bees and placed about half of them into a dark box for 6 hours. They anesthetized the others, disrupting their sense of time and, as a result, their ability to use the sun’s position in the sky to navigate. After a 6-hour delay and a move to a new location 600 meters from the hive, the experimenters released their captives. The paths that the drugged and undrugged groups took at first differed, reflecting the foggy bees’ skewed sense of time (imagine waking at sunset thinking it was sunrise and trying to find north), but the drugged bees soon corrected. Both groups ended up on similar paths, returned to the hive about the same time, and returned in similar numbers: Twenty-nine of 36 drugged bees and 18 of 21 sober bees made it back to the hive. That means the insects weren’t relying solely on the sun to navigate and instead must be using mental maps, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Bees don’t have the brain structure, called the hippocampus, thought to store the spatial memories underlying mental maps in humans. So psychologists may have to rethink how we ourselves navigate, even when we’re not drugged and kidnapped on the way home.
*Correction, 3 June, 4:58 p.m.: The photo above has been replaced; the previous photo depicted a hover fly, not a bee.