Bee's can do a EXACT arithmetic?

Honeybees can learn to add and subtract, according to research showing that while the insects have tiny brains, they are still surprisingly clever.

Researchers behind the study have previously found that honeybees can apparently understand the concept of zero, and learn to correctly indicate which of two groups of objects is the smaller.

But now they say insects can learn to carry out exact numerical calculations such as adding and subtracting a given number.

“Their brain can manage a long-term rule and applying that to a mathematical problem to come up with a correct answer,” said Dr Adrian Dyer, co-author of the research from RMIT University in Australia. “That is a different type of number processing to spontaneous quantity judgments.”

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Read moreIf the team are right, the insects are in good company. While it was once thought that only humans could manage such calculations, the authors note recent research has revealed a veritable menagerie of creatures can keep track of numbers or even add or subtract. 

“[There was] evidence that other primates could do it and then an African grey parrot, Alex, famously could do it, but also some spiders could do it,” said Dyer. 

The team say the latest research adds to a growing body of evidence, including human studies, that language is not necessary for learning how to manipulate numbers. And there’s more. “It is teaching us a lot about what brains can do and what necessary structures you might need in brains to achieve certain outcomes,” said Dyer.

However, Paul Graham, professor of neuroethology at the University of Sussex, was cautious, and said it was not clear that the bees really did have a concept of mathematical operations, or even numbers.

“In reality, you don’t really know what the animal has done, because you are not investigating how it is doing it,” he said, adding it was hard to design an experiment to rule out other, simpler explanations for the bees’ behaviour.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, Dyer and colleagues describe how their research involved releasing bees into a simple maze in which they were shown a picture of a small number of coloured shapes. After flying through a hole, the bees were presented with two further images showing a different number of shapes.

When the shapes in the set up were blue, insects that made a beeline for the image with one more shape than in the initial picture were offered a sugary drink. When the shapes were yellow, they were rewarded for flying to the image with one fewer shape. If the bee flew to the “incorrect” image, they were given a quinine solution – which is unpleasant to bees.


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