Bees have featured heavily in our headlines due to the substantial decline in numbers over recent years. As bees are the primary pollinator of flowering plants, this reduction could have a significant effect on agricultural yields and the availability of food for future generations. This threat has resulted in extensive research being carried out to understand their habits and behavioural patterns.
Recent research conducted by the University of London looked into how bees navigate around plants to collect nectar. It was discovered that bees determine the shortest route between flowers as opposed to the order in which the flowers are discovered. This ensures the bees optimise their route by minimising the distance travelled and the energy used in flight. This is no mean feat for a bee as they have a brain the size of a pin head! This complex calculation is analogous of the ‘Travelling Salesman Problem’ which features so heavily in operational research studies. Typically the Travelling Salesman Problem is applied in logistics and supply chain studies to minimise the cost of distributing goods around a network. The approach applies the concept of ‘cities’ to describe distribution points and ‘distance’ to describe the distance or cost between these distribution points. The Travelling Salesman Problem aims to minimise the total distance travelled or cost of reaching all ‘cities’ on the network. Exact algorithms can be applied to calculate all possible permutations and select the optimal solution, although this approach is often impractical for large networks as the computational time is determined by the factorial of the number of cities. For example, a network containing all the capital cities in Europe would have over 2 x 1057 potential solutions. In most applications an approximation algorithm is used to calculate good solutions quickly. Operational research can be applied to help clients optimise their supply chains, with the objective of minimising cost or response times. Advanced analytical techniques can be applied to analyse and optimise the most complex systems to ensure goods are provided at the point of need at minimum cost. This is a key aspect of delivering competitiveness in sectors such as manufacturing, retail and transportation. The research conducted by the University of London raises some interesting questions on how bees manage to solve such complex computational problems with limited neuron numbers. The continuation of the research should allow us to further understand how to solve complex algorithms whist minimising computational time. The research that is being carried out worldwide not only helps us to protect bees and secure food sources, but also provides valuable insight on efficient data processing, as well as team organisation and decision-making. Perhaps bee hives could make their own contribution to cloud computing? Bee hives on the roof of 40 Holborn Viaduct? Maybe one day!