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Bees are quicker than computers at maths

Bees are capable of solving complex mathematical problems which keep computers busy for days, research has shown.

The insects learn to fly the shortest possible route between flowers discovered in random order, and, unlike any other known animal besides humans, are capable of solving the "travelling salesman problem", say scientists. That classic conundrum involves finding the shortest route that allows a travelling salesman to call at all the locations he has to visit.

Computers solve the problem by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest. Bees manage to reach the same solution using a brain the size of a grass seed. Dr Nigel Raine, of the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: "Because bees use lots of energy to fly, they find a route that keeps flying to a minimum.

"Despite their tiny brains, they are capable of extraordinary feats of behaviour. We need to understand how they can solve the travelling salesman problem without a computer. What shortcuts do they use?"

The research, due to be published this week in the journal The American Naturalist, has implications for the human world.

Modern living depends on networks such as traffic flows and business supply chains. Learning how bees solve the travelling salesman problem with such a tiny brain may lead to simple ways of managing these everyday connections.