The Buzzing Supercomputer

Imagine you are a door-to-door salesman in a town with poor urban planning.  Tasked with visiting 25 specific houses, you note that your potential customers are located scattershot around the town.   How do you figure out the quickest route which will let you visit each house once?  Chances are, you can’t.  The problem in front of you, colloquially called the “Travelling Salesman Problem,” is an incredibly complex mathematical problem which is computationally difficult, to say the least.  In most cases, you will need a computer to “brute force” the problem, meaning that the computer will attempt each possible combination and, in the end, be left with one which is faster than the rest.

It’s a problem which has plagued mathematicians for the better part of a century.  Why?  Because it has implications in systems used in everyday life: traffic patterns, manufacturing processes, or even how your local shopping mall is laid out.   In any instance where there are multiple destinations are at issue, the travelling salesman problem comes into play.  And as the number of potential destinations increases, the difficulty in optimizing the route increases as a factorial.

So, yeah.  You can’t solve it in your head.

Which, in this case, makes you significantly less intelligent than a bee.

Researching in London observed the buzzing honeymakers and noticed that bees are masters at solving the traveling salesman problem.  Once introduced to a field of flowers and given a chance to explore, they quickly create an internal workflow which, it turns out, is the best route “for saving time and energy,” eschewing the intellectually (for us people) easier method of simply going to whatever depot is immediately closest.

Why does this happen?  We don’t know — yet.  For good reason, the researchers who discovered the bees’ ability to optimize work patterns are now focused on answering this deeper, and potentially incredibly valuable, question.


Bonus fact:  The researchers may be working against the clock.   A study in India suggests that bee populations may be at risk due to cell phone use, as the radiation from phones may distorting magnetic fields which bees — using special blue light receptors called cryptochromes — rely on for navigation.  (Whether cryptochromes have something to do with the traveling salesman problem is anyone’s guess at this point.)

From the Archives: Flies Fear Ugly Bags of Mostly Water: Why a neat little trick probably works.

Related: “The Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, Honey, Recipes & Other Home Uses” by Richard A. James. Five stars on two reviews.