Bee research receives a $2.5m buzz at QBI

20 Aug 2008

The Queensland Minister for Tourism Regional Development and Industry, Desley Boyle, today opened The University of Queensland's new $2.5m “All Weather Bee Flight Facility” at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI).

With nearly 200m2 of useable flight space, it is the world's largest indoor, climate-controlled insect flight-testing facility and will undoubtedly play a key role in helping scientists to better understand how complex brains function.

Built as part of QBI's ongoing investigations into the fundamental mechanisms that drive brain function, the facility is a high-tech rooftop structure with climate-control and abundant natural light, specially designed for studying bees and their behaviour.

QBI Director Professor Perry Bartlett said the humble honeybee offered neuroscientists many unique insights into the mechanisms of brain function and brain development.

“Bees have an extensive behavioural repertoire, allowing scientists studying them to learn about vision, olfaction, memory and learning and even aggression – all human traits,” Professor Bartlett said.

“Bees offer a good research model – because they are studied in a natural setting that is easily accessible to scientists. Importantly, from a neuroscience perspective, while the bee brain is only about the size of a sesame seed, it has many of the characteristics of the human brain including complex behaviours such as advanced memory and learning.”

The higher brain centres of bees can expand five to six times in volume over the course of their adult life. In addition, because bees are relatively short-lived (about one month), researchers can study several generations a year.

This so-called “plasticity” is now understood to work the same way as it does in a vertebrate brain, involving processes such as the production of new nerve fibres, nerve synapses and even new nerve cells.

QBI's Head of Visual Neuroscience Professor Mandyam Srinivasan said the facility would play an important part in his future research.

“Studying how bees control their flight speed, avoid collisions and orchestrate smooth landings is providing valuable insights into the design of biologically inspired vision systems for unmanned aerial vehicles,” Professor Srinivasan said.

Professor Srinivasan – who won the 2007 Queensland Smart State Premier's Fellowship and the 2006 Prime Minister's Prize for Science – is recognised nationally and internationally for his groundbreaking discoveries concerning bee vision, navigation, perception and cognition.

During more than two decades of research, Professor Srinivasan and his team have produced some 180 publications, including 21 papers in high-impact journals such as Nature, PNAS, PLOS Biology, Current Biology and Science.

In a 2004 Nature paper, he demonstrated that scent could trigger complex navigational memories in honeybees. He proved that scent injected into a hive could stimulate experienced bees to fly to previously visited sites, through previously formed associations between scent and location.