Glueing tiny antennae to the backs of honeybees is not an easy task.
They’re very good at escaping from us,” said Dr Joe Woodgate, of Queen Mary University of London.
“And when we do succeed, we’re left holding an angry bee, which isn’t always the safest place to be.”
But UK researchers are convinced that if they can work out how bees visually navigate, they could recreate a synthetic insect brain that would control drones and driverless cars, and help them move more intuitively.
Currently, drones and automated vehicles use GPS and programmed routes to get around, but if the signal is lost, or if there is an obstacle on their route, they struggle to reorient themselves and pick a new path.
With honeybees, whose daily job involves ferrying nectar from one point to another, evolution has already solved those problems.
To determine how bees get around, scientists have attached tiny radio transponders to the backs and heads of hundreds of bees and monitored them as they zip around Hertfordshire.
After mapping movements on a 3D digital reconstruction of the fly zone, they can work out what decisions the bees made and how they altered their courses.
So far, researchers have modelled 25pc of the honeybee brain, largely the parts that deal with visual processing, and have created a prototype “bee-bot”, which runs on basic insect neural networks. The next stage is to take recordings of neurons when the bees are navigating in a virtual reality chamber with panoramic scenes to learn more about their decision making.
Prof James Marshall, who led the project from the University of Sheffield, and has created a spin-off bee tech firm called Opteran Technologies, said: “It is pretty impressive that a bee can fly over five miles, then remember its way home, with a brain the size of a pinhead.”
Bee brains contain only a million brain cells (humans have 100 billion) yet they can still navigate for miles.
They are also able to remember individual plants and communicate that location through “waggle dancing”.