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Ants Use Pedometers to Find Home 202

Ant writes "New Scientist (a short video clip included) reports that desert ants have an internal pedometer that keeps track of how many steps they take, according to a new study. The insects seem to rely on this system to find their way back to the nest after foraging. Other insects may also possess this pedometer-like system. Some types of ants appear to use visual cues or leave scent trails to find their way home. But desert ants have a remarkable ability to retrace their steps from their nesting site even though they travel on flat terrain that is devoid of landmarks, and any odors quickly fade in the hot temperatures."
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Ants Use Pedometers to Find Home

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  • Fun (Score:5, Funny)

    by Eightyford ( 893696 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:28PM (#15633837) Homepage
    Wouldn't it be fun to give the ants little shoes to make their legs longer? That would screw 'em up pretty good.
    • Re:Fun (Score:3, Informative)

      by gasmonso ( 929871 )

      There's a video on the site that show the ants on stilts. Ants on stilts man! It doesn't get an better. And I thought my job was weird.

      http://religiousfreaks.com/ [religiousfreaks.com]
    • Re:Fun (Score:3, Funny)

      by cp.tar ( 871488 )
      There's a blacksmith in Lancre who can shoe an ant...
    • Wouldn't it be fun to give the ants little shoes to make their legs longer? That would screw 'em up pretty good.

      Not nearly as fun as standing over the colony with a mangifying glass. Hot Sun + Magnifying glass == hours of afternoon fun! Don't get one that's too big (too hot) - it's fun to chase the little buggers for a while with a smaller one to play a lively, cat & mouse style game of "keep the white spot on the running-for-dear-life bug".
    • Wouldn't it be fun to give the ants little shoes to make their legs longer? That would screw 'em up pretty good.

      As pointed out by others, that's what the article is about...

      One other reason to RTFA are classic quotes you might otherwise miss out on:

      When the researchers shortened the ants' legs the insects had trouble finding home.

      who would have thought.
      • Re:Fun (Score:3, Insightful)

        by moro_666 ( 414422 )
        couldn't they just have moved "home destination" by shifting
        it around a bit instead of cuttiny legs off the pests ?

          i'm no peta fanatic but sawing someones legs off seems rather violent.

        next in news, cutting partially off scientist brains seems to affect research results
        • Re:Fun (Score:2, Informative)

          "couldn't they just have moved "home destination" by shifting it around a bit instead of cuttiny legs off the pests ?" Moving home to somewhere closer or further away does nothing to determine their method of navigation. Even if you put them on a treadmill, they could be using an internal clock or "how tired they get" (?) to determine when they've gone far enough. The only way to narrow it down to a pedometer is to make each of their strides take them a different distance than they are used to.
    • > Wouldn't it be fun to make their legs longer?

      They did! [spiegel.de]
  • WARNING (Score:5, Funny)

    by voice_of_all_reason ( 926702 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:29PM (#15633840)
    Under the Child Protection Act of 2009, all internet communication violating the Department of Homeland Security's blacklist is subject to investigation.

    This website contains the term "pedo", and is thereby placed under quarantine until the aforenamed inquiry is complete. Any additional edits to this page will be persued and the authors viewed as accomplices to the crime.

    Have a nice day.
    • Re:WARNING (Score:2, Insightful)

      by garcia ( 6573 )
      Umm, you will now be publically ridiculed, harrassed, and hopefully prosecuted (in the "Land of the Free") for undermining the US Government's top secret and highly classified "Positive Media Relations and Protection Act" which states:

      "No media outlet, its subsidaries, or its posters shall be awarded freedom of speech when it is considered to expose the US Government's attempts at being sneaky, shitty, assholish, or going completely against eveything guaranteed by the Constitution. Penalties include being
    • I think I installed one of those pedometers to track the distance the mouse travels once, but my cursor kept pointing at freenet. What's up with that?
    • Bud, I now this might be a troubling thing for you to know, and try as I might, I can't think of a better way to put this, but
      NOT FUNNY. NOT EVEN CLOSE. DONT EVER AGAIN TRY TO GO FOR THAT +5, FUNNY MOD COZ YOU ARE NOT FUNNY AND ARE SO NOT FUNNY THAT IF THERE EVER WAS A NEW WORD FOR NOT-FUNNY, THAT WOULD BE YOUR NICK, BUT BECAUSE IT WOULDNT BE FUNNY,
      There. Much better.
  • by rramdin ( 857005 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:30PM (#15633844)
    It's actually a surprisingly complex system. They not only measure how much distance they've covered, but also every turn they've made. They basically "remember" a complete log of their journey, and are able to reset it every time they return to the nest.
    • So if you let an ant crawl onto your hand, then place it down somewhere else.. it will get lost? :P
      • Heh, I never thought of that. I guess it couldn't tell the difference.
      • So if you let an ant crawl onto your hand, then place it down somewhere else.. it will get lost? :P
        Why don't you try it and find out? :)
      • by Sir Codelot ( 830933 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @10:31AM (#15636064)
        So if you let an ant crawl onto your hand, then place it down somewhere else.. it will get lost?

        In fact I used to perform such "experiments" with ants. The ants at my place used scent trails. If I rub-off the scent trail left behind, the ants coming behind get dis-oriented for a while.
        And when I transport an ant manually to an unknown territory, it raises its head and looks around for familiar landmarks.
        Not all ants use scent trails. I found that the larger ones use the direction of a light source (or their shadow) to navigate to a place.

    • MIT Mobile Robot Lab (Score:5, Interesting)

      by JonTurner ( 178845 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @01:10AM (#15634257) Journal
      Jonathan Connell* built a mobile robot @ MIT which used a not too dissimilar system for navigation. It counted the number of doors that it passed through, and the number of turns to the left. This robot, Herbert, had the goal of collecting soda cans and would wander about the lab autonomously collecting these cans and returning home but making an appropriate number of entries through doorways and turns to the right using a magnetic compass as a rough guide. There was no internal map, no master plan, to 3D model of the world, no GPS yet this robot was able to navigate very complex, real-world spaces effectively. It's interesting to see that there's a biological model here that validates many of these assumptions.

      ** I hope I'm correct on the details... I'm going from memory from a reading of Connell's Master's Degree disseration I read probably ten years back... I believe the title was "Minimilist Mobile Robotics" but I'm certain it was published through Academic Press. This was one of the early MIT Mobile Robot Lab robots to use Subsumption Architecture.
      • by msloan ( 945203 )
        I was about to say: There have been robots that can do dead reckoning using steppers and encoders and such for quite a while. But that is a pretty interesting approach. Way better than the current idea of precision mapping (perhaps using multiple agents). Have a room relationship map rather than a real map. Subsumption architecture is pretty cool as well. It's rather obvious, but that's probably just because ive known about it for a while. I think kind of a fuzzy hierarchal subsumption architecture w
        • Yeah. But have you ever seen an ant's brain? Try doing the same things a robot does on something as primitive as an ant's brain, and I'd REALLY be impressed.

          Heck, most of my coworkers have brains TWICE as big as an ant's, and have a hard time with spacial orientation.
    • It'd be even better if they were smart enough to plot a direct route back to the nest after making one of their standard 'randomly walk a few steps in any direction' trips. Still pretty fascinating though..and from an engineering standpoint, very elegant. The FSM did a fine job.
      • That would only work if they also had a clear idea of any obstacles in their way: this way they only have to be able to remember turns and steps, which is pretty simple.

        "41 steps south, then turn right 43 degrees, then 814 steps, then turn left 7 degrees, and go 128 steps". I could do it! (okay, probably not).
    • They really don't dig salt, though.

      Next time you have a column of tiny immigrants breaking in and going for the sugar, block their ingress with a pile of the other white powder. Cheaper and less toxic than some of the other alternatives.
    • So you're saying the ant just rolls back the transaction?
  • by pmj ( 527674 )
    I thought this was a really cool paper too, and it would be really interesting to know in greater detail how exactly they count their steps.

    And if some alien race comes down to do the experiment on us, I hope they attach stilts to my legs rather than creating stumps out of them. :)
    • and it would be really interesting to know in greater detail how exactly they count their steps

      1,2,3,4... Same as us I'd expect, only in antese.
    • I thought this was a really cool paper too, and it would be really interesting to know in greater detail how exactly they count their steps.

      Images of the ants generated by electron microscope have revealed the ants all carry TI-83 calculators in a bag attached to the abdomen. Further investigation has also shown the more popular ants to carry iPods and Motorola RAZR cell phones. These ants, however, do not use the internal pedometer system to reach home, instead relying on the dashboard GPS navigation syst

  • When the researchers shortened the ants' legs the insects had trouble finding home.
    Why would ants travel 50% further or less because of a 1mm (+/-) change in their leg length?

    Proportionally, 1mm is a very small change.
    • 1mm taken off of each leg from an ant *is* a significant amount.
    • have you looked at an ant lately?
      When you legs are only 5 mm long to start with, 1mm is a SIGNIFICANT change- 20% shorter.

      Take a hacksaw and cut your legs a few inches below the middle of your shin, see how well you do.
      • Have you looked at a desert ant lately?

        Their legs are longer than 5mm, as the higher they are off the sand, the cooler it is.

        Rear leg length is normally much longer than the others, as an ant will stand up on it's rear legs to elevate when it needs to cool off.

        I'll concede the larger point, that 1mm is a significant portion of the leg length, but it definitely isn't 20%
    • It would be wonder if the ants could walk at all without a piece of their legs.
    • Re:Ouch? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by guruevi ( 827432 )
      Well, what would you say when you are 5ft tall and someone just cut off 1ft of your legs. I think the pain and agony of the cut-off legs is what made them have trouble finding home. I think humans with 1/2 their legs being cut off would also have trouble finding home. I think it would be better to make the legs LONGER without causing them pain (nanotubes...) would validate the experiment
    • "Why would ants travel 50% further or less because of a 1mm (+/-) change in their leg length?
      Proportionally, 1mm is a very small change."

      Dont know how long the ants legs are where you come from, but around here 1mm is a major proportion of ant leg!
    • When the researchers shortened the ants' legs the insects had trouble finding home.

      On the upside, the ants had no trouble finding personal injury attorneys to take their case.
  • by Freaky Spook ( 811861 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:33PM (#15633857)
    But it involves massive amounts of alcohol for it to work properly.

    Commenly called the beer scooter, it is a mechanism that guides you safley home to your bed, no matter how far away or how drunk you get. Its side effects can be unfortunate though as unexplained cuts and bruises plus a bank account severly depleted of funds are commen occurances upon awakening.
  • by geerbox ( 855203 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:34PM (#15633863)

    From TFA, the video of the ant with stilts (worth a watch):

    http://www.newscientist.com/data/images/ns/av/dn94 36.mpg [newscientist.com]

    Thought it was pretty neat; the ant begins to look like a spider with the longer legs. The video didn't seem to have any additional bearing to the study, though. You'd need to read TFA for how the stilts helped in their conclusion.

  • by Assassin bug ( 835070 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:37PM (#15633880) Journal
    One of the few zoological fields were you can chop off your subjects legs without needing to sign any legal paperwork!
    • On the serious side,

      1. The ants are decades ahead of us in pedometer miniaturization.

      2. They've managed to keep their advanced technology secret for years.

      3. They finally revealed it only after brutal mutilation.

      These three facts together should give us pause.
      • On the serious side,

        1. The ants are decades ahead of us in pedometer miniaturization.

        2. They've managed to keep their advanced technology secret for years.

        3. They finally revealed it only after brutal mutilation.

        These three facts together should give us pause.

        Obviously, this calls for government action. I say we need a "war on ants".

  • Treadmill! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Assassin bug ( 835070 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:42PM (#15633892) Journal
    They should have constructed a mini treadmill (complete with moving walls) --seriously-- to see if the ants with normal legs still walk the same distance for a reward. That would really drive there point home.
  • by seriv ( 698799 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:47PM (#15633915)
    I have to wonder with an experiment like this how the scientists went about modifying the ants. I would think that the ants would be disoriented a little by these changes, and the results might be affected in a way that would not have to do with the 'internal pedometer.' This might have been considered, but it might not have been.
    • That would seem to be a very likely possibility, but it seems that you and others on here are missing one more important detail. The BBC's report says that the researchers found the ants with modified legs had no trouble returning to their home if they made BOTH the outward AND the homeward journeys with modified legs. This implies that modifying their legs might not be disorienting them too much after all. Instead, it reinforces the hypothesis that something else is involved, namely the counting of thei
  • I RTFA. (first mistake -- I know)

    What if the ants basically know how tired they are after they get home?

    I know when I walk a long way, I get tired at about the same distance. I'm not counting my steps and I don't think my brain is doing it subconsciously.

    They need to weigh an ant down or attach it to a tiny helium balloon for the trip to rule it out. It's no sillier than putting stilts on them.
    • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @12:32AM (#15634122) Journal
      Since it is a round trip. So lets put it in human terms, say it is a 5 km walk to the shops. Are you as tired as when you arrive at the shops as you are when you return back home? Only if you spend the night at the shops and get a good nights sleep.

      So it can't be tiredness, that would only work for two seperate journeys, not a round trip.

      What could work is "fuel" consumption. This is probably the same both ways but again fails because the ant is on a feeding trip. He will be travelling empty on the way to the food source and carrying food on the return trip wich probably cause him to burn more fuel.

      Just get out the old car anology. Your "tired" idea translates then to the heat of the engine. a trip on even terrain should see the engine heat up to the same degree but on a round trip to the shops the engine would not cool down to the same level as when you started.

      The fuel consumption would also not work because on the return trip your car will be heavier.

      So how do we measure distance in a car? Oh wait with a pedometer like device wich same as with the ants will be screwed up if you change the size of your tires.

      Funny experiment, chopping legs of ants and giving them stilts. I bet that impresses the girls.

    • Time waits for neither ant nor pie.
  • More details? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by scribblej ( 195445 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:52PM (#15633944)
    I sure wish there were more information. If this is true; it's somewhat interesting. But with so little to go on, it could just as easily not be true.

    As the most obvious example to spring to mind; they tried ants with legs (we're left to assume) 50% longer that went 50% further than home and legs 50% shorter that only got halfway home. They then say this is because he counts steps -- obviously each step takes the one ant 50% further and the other 50% shorter.

    So what if the ant goes by the amount of time it's been traveling; nothing to do with counting steps at all --?

    You'd expect exactly the same results.

    I hope it's just the awful article -- if the study is so poor they've really learned nothing.

    • So what if the ant goes by the amount of time it's been traveling; nothing to do with counting steps at all --?
      Out of curiosity, how do you make an ant run? Besides the obvious magnifying glass on a hot sunny day (something tells me that might not stand up to the review process).
      • if you crush an ant, it produces alarm pheromones. Ants will panic when they detect it (though some species will go into attack mode).
    • I have an access to the article and according to the authors:

      The normal ants walk at average speed of 0.31 m/s
      Stumped ants walk at average speed of 0.14 m/s
      Stilted ants would be expected to walk faster. But their average speed was measured to be 0.29 m/s. They think its probably due to the increased weight of the glue and stilts.

      So, your argument regarding the time taken to travel back is probably not true.

      Furthermore, in their statistical modeling they adjusted for the speed of the ant among many other fac
    • Good point -- and my guess is you're right, that it's more of a timing thing than a counting thing.

      Most higher animals have some sense of time, and it can be VERY accurate (to within a minute or so in 24 hours). Most people who regularly drive long distances (and particularly on unpaved roads) get so they think in terms of "about nn-hours" rather than mileage. Etc. Anyway, considering how widespread "timesense" is in the higher animals, chances are it's a very primitive function (evolution-wise), thus somet
  • by Verminator ( 559609 ) on Thursday June 29, 2006 @11:54PM (#15633956)
    ... I learned from SimAnt [wikipedia.org]
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The original research paper appears in this week's edition of Science and can be found via this page: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/312/57 82/1844a [sciencemag.org]
    (subscription needed to read the full paper).

  • What if... (Score:5, Funny)

    by fireman sam ( 662213 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @12:12AM (#15634039) Homepage Journal
    What if I find one of these ants on its way home and I pick it up and move it back a few meters (or feet), would it therefore be forever destined to wander the Earth? Or will it just create a new home a few meters (or feet) from the original?
    • Back in high school I did precisely such a study on red forest ants. We dubbed it the 'homing pigeon behavior' of ants.
      Our results showed that up to a distance of about 7 metres the ants were able to find their way back to home. Please note we took the ants from their nests and placed them at varying distances from the nest in varying directions. We did not make a distinction between ants with different functions in the nest.

      It was interesting to see that the ants would sometimes interact with other ants a
    • This is God's creation, not MS software.
  • Side Crawlers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Atmchicago ( 555403 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @12:15AM (#15634045)

    Many beach/land crabs use the same system. They also have built-in abilities to make calculations on the quickest diagonal path to their burrow - ie the pythagorean theorem. One guy did some experiments where he would do things to mess up the step count of the crabs to their burrows, and they always were displaced by the exactly difference in step count. The crabs have no idea where their burrow is or what it looks like, they just know how to walk there. It must be the same in ants.

  • by Joebert ( 946227 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @12:21AM (#15634067) Homepage
    Does this mean that Ants are smarter than early versions of Windows ?
  • by capiCrimm ( 921029 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @12:41AM (#15634150)
    I'm wondering which drug you have to take to come up with the idea to tie stilts onto ants? This just sounds like something a drunk guy would come up with, except that that normally ends with someone loosing some fingers and teeth, not a scientific article. Of course, both results have the same attractive results with women.
  • ANTNet (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PHanT0 ( 148738 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @12:45AM (#15634161)
    It's been a while since I worked on this, but these idea have been propagated through networking protocols for years. When I was in University at Dalhousie I spent quite a bit of time on a directed study of somethink called the 'AntNet Routing Protocol'.

    The idea was based on the pheramone trails left behind whne ants seek food. You see, one ant leaves behind a trail, not a big one, but a small scent to be picked-up by other ants. When it finds food, it will retrace it's steps backwards and double the intesity of the pheramone trail. If another ant happens upon a trail, it will follow the trail to the food and increase the trail's intensity again. If the trail ever ends without a prize, ants look around to try and pick-up the trail again. Simple concept, right?

    Adapting this behaviour from ants to packets on a network was easy. You had ants that walk forward and ants that walk backwards. Forward ants would collect hostnames, IP address and time stamps as they passed through any PC and kept going to their host. Backward ants updated the routing table when they retraced their steps. If any route had a lower cost (latency) then the entry already in the routing table, then an updated entry was posted. There was also a hidden advantage to all this - if, for any reason, a node went down or dropped off the network it was easily and quickly detected. Furthermore if a link went down, alternate routes were already in place if you kept double-layered routing table... quick, easy and fast network response times were the result. Consider time stamps like a tick on a pedometer...

    In case you're wondering, all computers on the network ran NTP to sync the time and give us one less hassle to worry about (this could be easily incorporated if need-be).

    My main area of research was to figure-out where and when the Ants started to impeed the network instead of help it. I found it to be a function of the number of discovery ants versus time and nodes on the network... some pretty rough math ensued from what I remember, but the time delta between discovery ants was paramount in any effective benefit to the network.

    Food for thought... or to the trail with the most ants. :-)
    • It's been a while since I worked on this, but these idea have been propagated through networking protocols for years. When I was in University at Dalhousie I spent quite a bit of time on a directed study of somethink called the 'AntNet Routing Protocol'.

      MUTE File Sharing [sourceforge.net] uses this idea to create an anonymous file sharing network. Since all the file transfer is done by ants, there's nobody to sue :-) Ok, it's actually a bit more complicated [sourceforge.net] - the packets mimic ants by using only local information to find d

    • Cool!

      This would be awesome to combine with an address-asignment protocol I conjured up a while back: CERP:- Chicken-Egg Resolution Protocol.

      Basically a DHCP-like service, without requiring a dedicated server. I've always wanted to release it as an RFC on April 1st.
  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @12:56AM (#15634202)
    With apologies to Frank Sinatra...

    just what makes that little old ant
    think he can always find his way back?
    where ever he goes,
    that ant
    can't
    forget all the steps back!

    except if he's got hiigh heels
    or
    no legs paaast his knees
    if he got high on the apple pie
    and stared at the bees in the sky

    so whenever your funding's low
    maybe spent it all on blow
    just remember those ants...
    whoops there goes another research grant!
    whoops there goes another research grant!

  • Pink Floyd (Score:4, Funny)

    by flickwipe ( 954150 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @07:11AM (#15635135)
    We dont need no pedometers. We dont need no leg control. Hey, researcher! leave those ants alone!
  • Sweet video of an ant running. Very helpful in describing the effect. [/sarcasm]
  • by Himring ( 646324 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @07:55AM (#15635250) Homepage Journal
    I have an ant problem in my house this week. I'm finding themin 3 different rooms meandering around. I was going to buy some ant killer after work today -- something in order of the stuff where they walk in it, take it back their hive, and infect the whole place. It appears now all I have to do is shout "4! 12! 37!" and they'll lose count and never get back home anyhow....
  • Homing Instinct (Score:2, Interesting)

    by sodell ( 161952 )
    What I find most interesting is how important it is to an ant colony to have inhabitants which wander and can navigate back to the nest. It seems so important, they've devised two different methods; one which depends on odor and this pedometer method. This specific need is so fundamental to their existence, it appears to drive their evolution.
  • by Medievalist ( 16032 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @09:35AM (#15635693)
    I don't have a subscription to read the original article, but the glossy schtick pointed to in the original post was pretty weak: "we mutilated ants and they couldn't find their way home, and if I buy fish it won't rain on monday, so therefore they have a pedometer hidden inside their gasters!". Hopefully the original has more actual science.

    Silver ants (they look more like they are chrome-plated than silver) also live in the Sahara. They come out at the hottest time of day, when all predators are hiding, and they are extremely reflective. They have a special gait that allows them to keep half their feet off the sand in the shadow of their bodies, and they keep switching off so their feet don't cook. They move about in a fairly normal search pattern, but when they find something they run directly back to the nest without retracing their original route! Although they are believed to have good vision, their environment contains almost no visual cues - one sand dune's pretty much like another - and they will pass through territory they haven't seen on the way back to the nest.

    Silver ants are also very hive-oriented or "altruistic". Individual foragers will go past their survival distance looking for food, but they turn around and come back so that their dead bodies are within the survival distance and can be recovered by other foragers. That way, if there is a food/water source that is further out than an ant could travel without such resources, they will still find it and use it.

    All this is from memory and the wiki article is lame. If anybody has some good links for silver ants please post!
  • But can they do calculus!
  • Yo may also take a look to my own simulator of Ant's food-gathering behaviour:

    http://www.geocities.com/chamonate/hormigas/antfar m [geocities.com]

    It tries to emulate the usual ants, that find the food and the way back using pheromone traces.
  • by nuzak ( 959558 ) on Friday June 30, 2006 @12:44PM (#15637185) Journal
    "Three-hundred seventy-thousand, five-hundred and three ..."
    "Three-hundred seventy-thousand, five-hundred and four ..."
    "Three-hundred seventy-thousand, five-hundred and five ..."

    "Oh hey Joe, how's foraging?"
    "Can't complain. Did you catch the game last night? Eight to one baby, totally blew the spread!"
    "Eight to one, yeah that was pretty insane. Well, gotta get back to the grind."
    "See ya in the tunnels."

    "Three-hundred seventy thousand, eight-hundred and one ... waitaminute.. DAMMIT!"
  • I don't buy for a second the idea that the ants count their footsteps. Of all the explanations they could come up with, that has to be the most ridiculous.

    Years ago, nobody was sure how honeybees knew how far they were flying, whether it was visual or they kept track of how much energy they burned, etc.. Nobody suggested they counted wing flaps, because that's just stupid.

    Anyway, it was proven that bees use visual cues. Not landmarks, like this article seems to suggest is the only way, but by how fast it
  • What the hell do you think those antennas are for?

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