Are honeybees right-handed or left-handed?


You may think this is the strangest question to have ever been asked in science, as honeybees don’t have hands (surely?), but hear us out. In a paper published in PLOS One, four researchers have looked at whether honeybees favor one ‘hand’ over another. Authored by Marielle Ong, Julia Groening, Michael Bulmer and Mandyam V. Srinivasan, the paper looks at whether flying honeybees have individual handedness, and the results were quite interesting.

Favoring one side

Many animals have a ‘dominant hand’ just as us humans do, particularly those with cognitive know-how. As an example, kangaroos are far more likely to be left-handed in daily tasks, whereas elephants will have a preference for one particular tusk. There is a common misconception that all polar bears are left-handed, although research has shown they are 50/50 when it comes to which is the more dominant paw. Humans, of course, will either be left or right-handed (with very few being ambidextrous and using both). In general, cognitive animals will have one favorable hand, paw or claw, which they use on a daily basis. However, it turns out that mammals aren’t the only ones to have a bias to which hand they use – the honeybee does too.

The experiments

Several experiments were carried out by the researchers for this paper, in an effort to research whether honeybees have an individual handedness; a bias for one side over the other. The base of this setup was a long tube that the bees would have to fly through, in order to reach the nectar at the end. During the different experiments, various obstacles were put in the tube, to see whether the bees would decide on the left-hand route or the right-hand one. When the gaps to squeeze through were different sizes, the bees inevitably went through the biggest hole, which was to be expected. However, as the gaps were made the right size, they found that 45% of the bees had a favorite side to fly through.

Getting interesting

To make things more interesting, the researchers took note of which honeybees had a favorite side and repeated the experiment with the different sized gaps. What they noticed was that if a bee had a particular bias towards the left or right, they would hesitate before picking the larger hole; as if they weren’t sure whether they should fly through the gap on their favorite side or go for the bigger opening. However, if they placed the larger gap on their favorable side, then they didn’t hesitate to fly through that one. While they may have always gone for the bigger gap, so as not to get stuck, the hesitation before choosing a route shows that perhaps honeybees can be right-handed or left-handed after all.

Using their findings

So, what’s the point in finding out whether honeybees prefer the left or the right? According to the researchers, this kind of information can be used to help improve drone design; something which studying bees has been extremely helpful for over the last few years. Using what they have learned, it’s thought that drones will be able to make more autonomous decisions while they are flying.

While less than the honeybees tested did have a bias towards left or right, it’s still vital information that can help us understand these humble creatures even more. And, it may even help us create autonomous flying drones… Aren’t bees amazing?!