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We Can Count on Bees, but Can Bees Count?

We all appreciate honeybees as reliable, hardworking, and generous insects which play vital roles in different ecosystems. But did you know that they are quite smart, too? A study published last February in Science Advances has shown that one species of honeybees—Apis mellifera— can solve problems involving some basic arithmetic operations.

Cecilia Grimaldi, “Sweet math”, Digital color photography

Bees’ cognitive capacities are not news to researches. Previous studies have shown that these insects not only can grasp concepts like ‘left/right,’ ‘above/below,’ and ‘larger/smaller,’ but they are able to count and even understand a concept as complex as the quantitive value of nothing, placing zero at the lower end of sequential positive numbers.

To further investigate bees’ numerical capacities, Scarlett Howard and colleagues trained honeybees to associate symbols of a specific color, either blue or yellow, with the arithmetic operations of addition or subtraction, respectively. At the entrance of a Y-maze, bees were presented with a certain number of colored symbols. Once they had viewed this stimulus, they could fly into one of two possible decision chambers. If the symbols at the entrance were blue, an addition was the right operation to apply, and the bees would need to chose the chamber containing one symbol more (and not more than one) than the sample number. On the contrary, a yellow stimulus meant that the correct choice was one symbol less compared to the sample number. As nobody does anything — especially math homework — for nothing, right choices led the bees to a sugary reward.

At the end of 100 training cycles, each bee proved the capacity to associate the color of a sample with the addition or subtraction of one element from the sample. Quite impressive, you might think. But the hardest part had yet to come. Once the bee achieved this, it would be presented four times with an unfamiliar sample number and shape. During these tests, the bees could successfully apply the learned arithmetical operations to unfamiliar problems, recording a correct score of 72%.

This study from Howard and colleagues showed that honeybees not only are able to perform arithmetic operations, but they can do so in what the researchers call “working memory” as the number (one) to be added or subtracted was an abstract concept that the bees had to figure out themselves.

These results have “identified numerous new areas for future research,” the authors write, “and also pose the question of whether these complex numeric understandings may be accessible to other species without large brains.” Indeed, the current debate in the field is “what brains of different sizes and architectures can achieve.” Now researches would like to understand whether animals with miniature brains like honeybees can also deal with large-number arithmetic problems (and no, the fact that the miniature brain of your upstairs neighbor who vacuums at 12:30 am is unable to handle the numbers on a clock is not enough to answer that).

Click here to read the full article: Howard et al., Science Advances, 2019


    • Cecilia Grimaldi says

      Good questions 🙂
      In this study, bees were tested only on the number range of 1 to 5. It would be interesting to see how they’d perform with larger numbers.
      Regarding the second question, the authors speculate that the cognitive ability of linking visual traits to reward quantification is likely to be beneficial to their foraging lifestyle. For example, it could be useful “to remember which flowers traits (e.g., color, shape, size) may provide essential resources and which flower traits may not.”

      Liked by 1 person

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