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How do honeybees use their magnetic compass? Can they see the North?

  • T. Válková (a1) and M. Vácha (a1)

While seeking food sources and routes back to their hive, bees make use of their advanced nervous and sensory capacities, which underlie a diverse behavioral repertoire. One of several honeybee senses that is both exceptional and intriguing is magnetoreception – the ability to perceive the omnipresent magnetic field (MF) of the Earth. The mechanism by which animals sense MFs has remained fascinating as well as elusive because of the intricacies involved, which makes it one of the grand challenges for neural and sensory biology. However, investigations in recent years have brought substantial progress to our understanding of how such magneto-receptor(s) may work. Some terrestrial animals (birds) are reported to be equipped even with a dual perception system: one based on diminutive magnetic particles – in line with the original model which has also always been hypothesized for bees – and the other one, as the more recent model describes, based on a sensitivity of some photochemical reactions to MF (radical-pair or chemical mechanism). The latter model postulates a close link to vision and supposes that the animals can see the position of the geomagnetic North as a visible pattern superimposed on the picture of the environment. In recent years, a growing body of evidence has shown that radical-pair magnetoreception might also be used by insects. It is realistic to expect that such evidence will inspire a re-examination and extension or confirmation of established views on the honeybee magnetic-compass mechanism. However, the problem of bee magnetoreception will not be solved at the moment that a receptor is discovered. On the contrary, the meaning of magnetoreception in insect life and its involvement in the orchestration of other senses is yet to be fully understood. The crucial question to be addressed in the near future is whether the compass abilities of the honeybee could suffer from radio frequency (RF) smog accompanying modern civilization and whether the fitness of this dominant pollinator might be affected by RF fields. The goal of this review is to provide an overview of the path that the behavioral research on honeybee magnetoreception has taken and to discuss it in the context of contemporary data obtained on other insects.

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