Bees Can Learn To Associate Abstract Symbols With Numbers

This basic maze has been used to prove bees can learn to match symbols to numbers of objects. RMIT University

The intellectual capacity of the tiny bee brain continues to astonish, with the latest discovery being they can learn that certain symbols represent numerical amounts. As with everything we have learned about bee intelligence, this must be done with astonishing efficiency, since they possess just a million neurons. Consequently, it is likely that replicating their methodology, if we can learn it, will offer the best chance to train machines light on processing power.

Dr Adrian Dyer of Australia's RMIT has been part of some remarkable studies demonstrating the capacity of the bee brain, including the fact that they can understand the concept of zero – something many human civilizations never invented.

For this study, Dyer's student Dr Scarlett Howard trained 10 bees to choose which arm of a Y-shaped maze to fly down based on matching symbols to a certain number of elements. For example, the bees might be shown a symbol representing the number 2, and then presented with three shapes/pictures in one arm and two in the other. Choosing the arm that matched the symbol led them to a sugar solution, while the wrong choice led to a bitter-tasting drink.

The bees were then tested on their ability to transfer this association to the same number of different shapes. A second group of bees did the experiment in reverse – being shown the number of shapes, then having to choose a matching symbol.

In the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dyer and Howard report both sets of bees got better at picking the correct maze arm the more training they had, even when the shapes changed, showing they really understood it was the number of objects that mattered. However, neither group of bees could spontaneously reverse the association – they didn't perform significantly better than chance on the other group's test without additional training.

A more details representation of the maze and the two different training groups. RMIT University

"We take it for granted once we've learned our numbers as children, but being able to recognize what '4' represents actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive ability," Dyer said in a statement. "Studies have shown primates and birds can also learn to link symbols with numbers, but this is the first time we've seen this in insects.”

The fact that each group of bees could not make the cognitive leap to the reverse proves vertebrates still have some intellectual advantages over insects. Alex the famously brilliant parrot, for example, was able to learn not just human names for numbers but engage in basic arithmetic. Nevertheless, the findings may help us understand how animals first gained a concept of number.

Dyer also regards the work as potentially useful for computing design, saying: “When we're looking for solutions to complex problems, we often find that nature has already done the job far more elegantly and efficiently."

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