Bees Can Do Complex Additions And Subtractions

Bees (Shutterstock/irin-k) over a background made of the shapes and colors used by the researchers (Howard et al.)

Honeybees are amazing! Their ability to pollinate plants is exclusively responsible for one-third of all the crops we consume daily. Not only that but they have a complex language, they can communicate to the other bees via dance, and they can explain to each other how far and where flowers are. On top of all this, they make delicious honey. It seems like there’s nothing they can’t do. And now, scientists have found that they can even do basic arithmetic.

Australian and French researchers have demonstrated that bees can add and subtract. This finding, on top of the earlier discovery that bees understand the concept of zero, tells us that having a small brain doesn’t necessarily limit one's mathematical abilities. The findings are reported in Science Advances.

“Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected,” senior author Professor Adrian Dyer, from RMIT University in Melbourne, said in a statement.

“You need to be able to hold the rules around adding and subtracting in your long-term memory, while mentally manipulating a set of given numbers in your short-term memory.

"On top of this, our bees also used their short-term memories to solve arithmetic problems, as they learned to recognize plus or minus as abstract concepts rather than being given visual aids.”

For the experiment, the team trained 14 free-flying honeybees to visit a Y maze, with one arm of the apparatus containing the correct solution with a reward of sugar water and the other a bitter quinine for the wrong answer. At the entrance to the maze, there were blue and yellow shapes. Blue shapes represented addition and yellow represented subtraction. 

After four to seven hours and roughly 100 trials of training, the bees learned that blue meant +1 and yellow -1. The researcher then began changing the location of the reward and the calculation necessary to get there. The honeybees were capable of applying the rules they had learned to the new problems.

"While the specific task of addition/subtraction may not be directly apparent in the honeybee’s natural environment, the skills and cognitive plasticity required for performing the arithmetic task are likely to be ecologically advantageous," wrote the team.

The findings are incredible not only for our understanding of the capabilities of other animals when faced with complex tasks, but also for reminding us that it's not necessarily the size of the brain that matters but how you use it. 

“If maths doesn't require a massive brain, there might also be new ways for us to incorporate interactions of both long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning of new problems,” Dyer commented.

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