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Busy bees

Marzo 2017
Le api hanno risolto in breve tempo un problema che a un computer avrebbe richiesto giorni: trovare la strada più breve per viaggiare da un punto all’altro, risparmiando energia. Gli scienziati sono entusiasti: il modo di pensare delle api potrebbe aiutare a risolvere problemi legati al traffico, alle comunicazioni...

di John O’Reilly © British Council

File audio:

Speaker: Rachel Roberts (Standard British accent)

A recent experiment proves that bees can save time and energy when they fly around to different flowers.


Dr Nigel Raine, from the Royal Holloway University of London, has always been interested in finding out why animals behave like they do. He is also interested in bees. It was not a surprise when he and some other scientists from Queen Mary University of London discovered that bees can quickly solve a problem that takes computers many days.


Flowers make pollen, and when bees visit them, they carry the pollen to other flowers. The plants need the pollen to make seeds that will grow. Dr Raine notes that we get a lot of our food from plants, so it is important to know how the bees move around and take the pollen between flowers. The scientists wanted to examine the journey that the bees take and how they save energy when they do this. They completed the experiment on the roof of Queen Mary University, using artificial flowers and a large amount of nectar. They taught one bee to visit all the flowers in one place at the same time. When the bee learnt the location of the flowers, they saw how she flew around and returned home with the nectar. After this, they changed the locations of the flowers. The scientists thought the bee would follow the route she knew already. This would mean that she followed a longer route than she needed to, and so she would use more energy. They watched the bee carefully as she travelled between the flowers in their new location, and they made notes. But in the experiment, the bee changed her route and flew a shorter distance.


The problem that the bee solved is similar to a maths puzzle called the “travelling salesman problem.” A salesman who goes to different places to sell things wants to travel the shortest distance to do this. If he is going to visit many places, it is not easy to know which is the shortest route. You have to calculate the length of many possible routes to know which one is the shortest. A computer can calculate this, but the experiment shows bees can do the same calculation quickly with a tiny brain. Scientists are very interested in how they do this. It would help us to understand how pollen is moved around. In addition, if they find this out, it could help us to improve communication networks. This might help humans to reduce traffic jams when there is an accident, for example.

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Busy bees. Questo titolo è un gioco di parole. Il significato letterale è 'api indaffarate', ma l'espressione si usa in genere per definire una persona molto occupata,  che si dà da fare

Maths puzzle. Enigma matematico. In inglese la parola puzzle indica un indovinello, un rompicapo. Il gioco del puzzle (i pezzettini di cartone da mettere insieme) in inglese si chiama jigsaw puzzle: jigsaw era letteralmente il tipo di sega con la quale si tagliavano i pezzi per fare il mosaico (del puzzle).