Gap perception in bumblebees

J Exp Biol. 2019 Jan 25;222(Pt 2):jeb184135. doi: 10.1242/jeb.184135.


A number of insects fly over long distances below the natural canopy, where the physical environment is highly cluttered consisting of obstacles of varying shape, size and texture. While navigating within such environments, animals need to perceive and disambiguate environmental features that might obstruct their flight. The most elemental aspect of aerial navigation through such environments is gap identification and 'passability' evaluation. We used bumblebees to seek insights into the mechanisms used for gap identification when confronted with an obstacle in their flight path and behavioral compensations employed to assess gap properties. Initially, bumblebee foragers were trained to fly though an unobstructed flight tunnel that led to a foraging chamber. After the bees were familiar with this situation, we placed a wall containing a gap that unexpectedly obstructed the flight path on a return trip to the hive. The flight trajectories of the bees as they approached the obstacle wall and traversed the gap were analyzed in order to evaluate their behavior as a function of the distance between the gap and a background wall that was placed behind the gap. Bumblebees initially decelerated when confronted with an unexpected obstacle. Deceleration was first noticed when the obstacle subtended around 35 deg on the retina but also depended on the properties of the gap. Subsequently, the bees gradually traded off their longitudinal velocity to lateral velocity and approached the gap with increasing lateral displacement and lateral velocity. Bumblebees shaped their flight trajectory depending on the salience of the gap, indicated in our case by the optic flow contrast between the region within the gap and on the obstacle, which decreased with decreasing distance between the gap and the background wall. As the optic flow contrast decreased, the bees spent an increasing amount of time moving laterally across the obstacles. During these repeated lateral maneuvers, the bees are probably assessing gap geometry and passability.

Keywords: Cluttered environment; Flight; Optic flow; Sensorimotor system; Vision.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Optic Flow / physiology*