Bees can solve basic maths problems

James Marshall
February 8, 2019

Now the new research published in the journal Science Advances suggests honeybees can do basic math too. But it's intelligence of the artificial sort the researchers say could benefit from such a discovery.

Previous year scientists discovered that the tiny honeybee brain could understand the concept of zero, something only a handful of animals can grasp. Big cognitive things, this research suggests, can come from small packages.

They put each honeybee in a Y-shaped maze, where they'd be shown one to five shapes that were either blue or yellow.

Scientists found that bees got the answer right 63 to 72 percent of the time, according to Time magazine, which is better than random chance. Now, that may not sound like a particularly impressive ability, but it's a capacity rarely seen in nature, with only a handful of nonhuman animals capable of the feat, including some primates and the African grey parrot.

A study has proved that they can add and subtract as well as being able to understand the concept of zero.

"If learning maths doesn't require a massive brain, there might also be new ways to incorporate interactions of long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning", Associate Professor Dyer said. If the shapes were blue, they needed to fly toward the picture containing one additional shape. The side of stimuli was changed randomly throughout the experiment, so that the bee would not learn to only visit one side of the Y-maze.

One light-hearted side effect may be motivating young kids to learn their arithmetic, says Dyer.

When Howard periodically tested the bees with an image that contained no elements versus an image that had one or more, the bees understood that the set of zero was the lower number - despite never having been exposed to an "empty set".

At the entrance the bees were shown a display of varied shaped "elements" - a square, diamond, circle or triangle - coloured either yellow or blue.

Declines in recent months to honey bee numbers and health caused global concern due to the insects' critical role as a major pollinator. The Egyptians and Babylonians show evidence of using arithmetic around 2000BCE, which would have been useful - for example - to count live stock and calculate new numbers when cattle were sold off.

Why is this a complex question for bees?

She designed the experiment using colour as a code for addition and subtraction, rather than the symbols we use.

Clint Perry, an expert on invertebrate intelligence from the Bee Sensory and Behavioural Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London, disagreed, saying the researchers didn't fully consider alternative strategies used by the bees.

The research was conducted in both Australia and France and involved many control experiments to validate the findings.

He said the bees learnt to very accurately choose the correct option. At the end of the maze, they were presented with a choice. "It might be they don't actually use this in any natural context". And these are not the only higher-level skills that bees appear to possess. "Bees are impressive and might be able to do arithmetic, but the results presented here do not convince me".

They pointed out that solving even basic maths problems required the mental ability to understand abstract rules, and an efficient short-term working memory.

The findings don't mean the average bee sits on a flower petal doing sums in its head, but the study does seems to indicate that the insects have the capability to learn a little math.

So just how big is a bee's brain?

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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