Researchers perform ultra precise brain surgery on bees in hopes of developing drones/mavs with advanced nighttime navigation.
A surgeon wielding a micro-scalpel cuts through the head capsule of her subject, the nocturnal sweat bee Megalopta genalis, in a lab at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The surgeon, a researcher working under Dr. Eric Warrant, of Lund University in Sweden, inserts a glass electrode thinner than a micrometer into the bee’s brain. She is trying to pierce something very small—a monopolar cell in a layer at the top of the brain called the lamina. Warrant believes these cells are responsible for a trick called neural summation, which helps the bees maximize the use of light photons to see in their dark habitat—the dense tangled undergrowth of the nighttime Panamanian rainforest. “It seems that these bees are able to do something that almost defies physics,” says Warrant, a functional zoologist who has been researching nocturnal vision in insects for more than two decades. “We believe the miracle of how the bees see so well at night is happening here in these lamina monopolar cells.”
M. genalis nest inside small sticks and forage for pollen in the hour right after sunset and the hour and a half before sunrise. Dr. William Wcislo, acting director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, theorizes that the bees feed during these dim hours because there is less competition for pollen and fewer predators. Humans would hardly see anything in the dark rainforest, but sweat bees forage with no problem, avoiding dangling lianas and drooping palms and returning home to a nest the width of a magic marker, with an opening just barely larger than their bodies.
Vision relies on the ability to process photons. Humans have what are known as camera lens eyes, which collect photons and direct them to the photoreceptors in the retina through a single lens. That works well in daylight with plenty of photons. But on a clear moonless night, any single spot on earth receives 100 million times fewer photons than it does on a clear sunny day. Nocturnal creatures evolved to maximize the photons’ use. If we understand how sweat bees do it, we may be able to build our nighttime navigation equipment to do the same.
That’s what the Unites States Air Force is after. “The nocturnal bees that Eric and his people look at in Panama do some light collection and processing tricks that allow them to see in conditions when most insects cannot see, and we are interested in that kind of trick,” says Ric Wehling, a senior research engineer at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The agency is pondering a future breed of Micro Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) that wouldn’t have to rely on GPS. These MAVs would be able to visually comprehend the world and see in the dark just like the bees.