Turns Out Bees Were Cheating When They Convinced Us They Could Do Math

Not just a pretty face and a well-dressed bod. Image credit: dance strokes/Shutterstock.com

Everybody loves a bee. They’re cute, smart, well-dressed, and do an important job. Well, three out of four isn’t bad according to a new study on bees’ ability to do math.

There’s been a lot of research into whether bees are tiny mathematical geniuses, and there is a lot of evidence they are; honey bees are thought to be the first insects found to understand the concept of zero, for example, and they can do complex additions and subtractions.

Not so, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Bees may have been cheating when they convinced us they were good at math. Instead of working with numbers to solve a problem, they may have taken a shortcut and used visual clues instead – which means they may not be book smart, but they have street smarts. Well played, bees.

An international team of researchers tasked honey bees with a math problem commonly used to test the numerical abilities of animals. The bees widely solved the task, but without the need for numbers. Instead, it appears they estimated quantities using simpler visual cues. However, this really goes to show how good animals are at finding the most effective problem-solving solution and how different that solution may be from us, the researchers say.

So how do you test a bee on its mad math skills?

The honeybees were trained to identify placards showing different numbers of shapes. For some of the bees, the sugar-water reward was placed at the placard that had the most shapes, while for others it was placed at the placard with fewer shapes. Once they'd learned this, the bees were capable of quickly finding the placards with the lowest or highest numbers of shapes to find their sweet reward.

To determine if the bees were using non-numerical clues – bypassing the complex cognitive task of using numbers by using visual cues – they repeated the experiment. However, this time instead of a higher number of shapes, they used the same number of shapes but in two sets, differing in visual aspects like edge length and spatial frequency. None of the placards in these tests had sugary treats, just unrewarding water. If the bees were using numbers, they should have flown to each placard equally in search of their reward. Instead, the bees trained to find sugar at the placards with the highest number of shapes flew to the placards with the highest number of variables (the shapes with the interesting edges), and vice versa for the bees trained to find a reward at the low numbered placards. This suggests they had been using visual cues of the shapes, not the number of them, in the first task.

“The results of our study show that animals are incredibly clever and can solve tasks in effective and unexpected ways," lead author Dr HaDi MaBouDi from the University of Sheffield, said

“This doesn’t mean that bees or other non-verbal animals can’t understand numbers," he noted, "but it does suggest that animals use non-numeric properties to solve the math problems they often face if such information is available."

Don’t discount our future bee overlords just yet. The researchers say this shows bees' brains have evolved to be able to distinguish numerical values using visual cues rather than the unnecessarily complex cognitive processing of numbers. This simpler way of problem-solving could be used to develop smarter AI that can carry out tasks much more efficiently than humans.

Whether or not these findings are definitive is yet to be seen, and more studies will need to be carried out. Or perhaps more math lessons are exactly what the bees are trying to avoid. Instead of being lazy and taking a shortcut, maybe they skipped the overthinking and outsmarted us after all?


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