Sridhar Ravi was outdoors with his colleagues on a summer day in Germany when a group of bumblebees grabbed his attention.

As the bees made their way from flower to flower, they skillfully flew between obstacles, dodging branches and shrubs. These actions seemed to require a complex awareness of one's physical body in relation to one’s environment that had only been proven to exist in animals with large brains. 

To examine this, a team of researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales, Canberra, led by Ravi, set up a hive of bumblebees inside their laboratory. The bees could come and go via a tunnel, which could be partially blocked with an adjustable barrier. Ravi and his team made the gap progressively smaller over time, and observed how the bees’ reactions changed.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found the bumblebees measured the gap by flying side-to-side to scan it. When the gap became narrower than their wingspan, the bees took a longer time to scan the opening. And then they did something remarkable: they turned their bodies to fly through sideways. Some of the bees’ bodies did bump the sides of the narrowed opening—but every one of the 400 recorded flights through the gap was a success.

“Over thousands of years nature has coded insects with some amazing attributes,” Ravi says. “Our challenge now is to see how we can take this and apply similar coding to future robotic systems, enhancing their performance in the natural world.”