Honey Bees Get Better At Math When They’re Punished For Their Mistakes

Talented architects need a good grasp of math. BigBlueStudio/Shutterstock

Rachel Baxter 10 Oct 2019, 23:00

Honey bees do more than buzz about and brew delicious honey; they’re tiny little mathletes too. We know that they can count, do complex additions and subtractions, and even understand the advanced mathematical concept of zero. Now, thanks to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, we know that their math skills get even better if making a mistake leaves a bad taste in their mouth.    

Honey bees, along with certain animals like humans and angelfish, are known to be able to distinguish between quantities of three things and four. However, when a quantity rises above four, they struggle and fail to distinguish between four objects and five. Or so we thought. The new study shows that if trained in the right way, honey bees can actually distinguish four shapes from five, six, seven, and eight.

So, how on Earth do you train honey bees to distinguish between numbers of shapes?

An international team of scientists created a Y-shaped maze and placed a different card in each arm. One had four shapes printed on it, while the other had a different number of shapes between one and 10. If the bee chose to head towards the card with four shapes, it was rewarded with some delicious sugar-rich water. If it failed to do so, it was given boring old plain water.

“[The] honey bees were very cooperative, especially when I was providing sugar rewards,” first author Scarlett Howard, of RMIT University and the University of Toulouse, said in a statement.

A honey bee drinks its sugary reward. Scarlett Howard

Then, another group of bees was trained on the same task with one crucial difference. They would still get a sugary treat when they chose the card with four shapes, but if they got it wrong, they received a nasty shock – bitter-tasting quinine. Yuck.

Once this training was complete, the experiment could begin. The bees were once again faced with a Y-shaped maze. One arm contained a card with four shapes, while the other housed one depicting five (the trickiest to distinguish from four), six, seven, or eight shapes.

The bees that hadn’t been confronted with quinine didn’t do all that well. They struggled to pick out the card with four shapes, even failing to differentiate between four and eight shapes. However, the bad-tasting quinine appeared to have made little perfectionists of the second group of bees. They were noticeably better at choosing the right number, and were even successful at choosing between four and five – the subtlest difference and, therefore, the one with the most room for error – picking the card with four shapes 59 percent of the time.

A bee's eye view of the cards. The smaller images show how we see the cards, while the larger ones show how the bees see them. Adrian Dyer

Just as we learn from our mistakes, bees pay more attention to a task when they know that failure might lead to an unpleasant outcome, a finding that could influence how scientists study the mathematical abilities of animals in the future.

“Through the possible modulation of attention, we show that previous studies on animal numerical ability, specifically quantity discrimination, may have underestimated the potential numeric ability of non-human animals,” the researchers write.

“We show that motivation, as modulated through conditioning, is critical to understanding what level of numerical ability an animal demonstrates.”

It seems bees really are minuscule mathematicians; they just need a bit of encouragement (or punishment) to show off their skills.

A study participant about to enter the maze. Scarlett Howard 
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