For bees and wasps, we know that after they get food, “they’re trying to get home, and they have the ability to navigate through really complex environments,” Wcislo said.
One of the ways they do this is the same as humans. We memorise landmarks such as a train station or a Starbucks shop that show us how to get back to our house. The sweat bees do this, too. When the bees leave the twig nests that they build hanging from branches, “they turn around and face the nest and fly around it. They’re learning, where’s the ‘Starbucks’,” said Wcislo.
How do they see the nest in the dark? The researchers thought maybe they look up at the forest canopy, where blobby patterns of the night sky look slightly brighter against the super-dark tree leaves. Do the bees recognise these patterns to get home?
The researchers built nests that had different patterns of black-and-white stripes over their entrances. The bees could find the nest that matched the pattern they memorised when they left home, even if the researchers moved its location.
This ability to navigate using forest canopy patterns, said Wcislo, “is fairly remarkable. It shows that this is a sensory world and what these bees pay attention to is richer than we thought before.”
It also shows that light pollution (too much artificial light) could confuse bees and other animals that are active at night: They need the pitch dark to navigate their own special way. Wcislo said the good news is that we can prevent light pollution. For example, people can programme highway lights to turn off when there are no cars on the road, and we can use different wavelengths of light that do not disturb animals.
“If we want plants and fruits, we need pollinators” such as sweat bees, Wcislo said. And by figuring out what they need to navigate, we can do better work to help conserve them.
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