Bees are able to understand mathematics, study reveals

Scientists train bees to add and subtract coloured shapes, suggesting an ability to perform calculations

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 06 February 2019 20:00 GMT
Asian hornets hovering outside a honeybee hive

Bees are able to grasp basic mathematical ideas, according to a new study, which suggests a small brain may not mean low intelligence.

After training a group of the pollinating insects scientists at the French National Centre for Scientific Research found they were able to perform addition and subtraction.

These abilities require animals to carry out intricate processes in their brains, remembering complex rules while applying them to new situations.

Maths was therefore long thought an ability unique to humans, but in recent years experiments have shown the skill is found across the animal kingdom.

Chimpanzees, parrots and pigeons are just some of the creatures that have demonstrated the capacity to add and subtract.

In the new study, a team led by Dr Scarlett Howard, first taught their bees to recognise colours as symbols for either addition or subtraction. Specifically, blue meant “more” and yellow meant “less”.

Next, their bees were trained to enter Y-shaped mazes in which they had to make a choice between two sets of shapes.

In each case, if they made the correct choice they were rewarded with a sugar water treat, whereas the wrong choice would yield a bitter-tasting quinine liquid.

At the entrance to the maze, the bees were met with between one and five shapes, coloured either blue or yellow.

Next they flew into a chamber where they could fly towards either the original number of shapes, plus or minus one, or the incorrect number of shapes.

If they first encountered blue they had to add, and if yellow they had to subtract.

Over the course of 100 trials, the researchers trained 14 bees to choose the correct option around 75 per cent of the time, the scientists wrote as they published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

Dr Howard compared the experiments to humans first learning to link mathematical symbols with concepts.

Ball-rolling study shows complex learning patterns amongst bees

“We learn as children that a plus symbol means you need to add two or more quantities, while a minus symbol means you subtract,” she said.

Professor Adrian Dyer, who contributed to the study, added: “Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected. 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.”

This is not the first time bees have demonstrated a way with numbers.

Previous experiments have shown the insects are capable of counting to four, and even understand the concept of zero.

Work conducted by Dr Howard and her team showed that when bees were incentivised to choose a target with fewer shapes, they recognised that a target with no shapes had fewer than one with two or three.

This was the first time an invertebrate had been shown to understand the abstract idea of zero – a concept even humans find more difficult to appreciate than other numbers.

While the ability to undertake these kind of calculations may not be immediately useful for bees, advanced brain power may help them when foraging for flowers to remember different combinations of colours and shapes.

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