Bees have brains for basic maths

Postado Fevereiro 08, 2019

The 14 bees taking part in the study were trained to enter a Y-shaped maze - and chose exits marked with number symbols.

If this research sounds familiar, you're probably thinking of a study put out past year by the same group of scientists, led by RMIT entomologist Adrian Dyer, showing that honeybees are capable of understanding the concept of zero. "This capacity is therefore probably shared by many other animals". According to, "previous studies have shown some primates, birds, babies and even spiders can add and/or subtract".

The research developed from the discovery that honey bees appear to understand the concept of zero.

'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, ' Dyer said. They were rewarded with water containing sucrose (sugar) and punished with water containing quinine (which has a bitter flavor) depending upon the outcome. The placement of the correct answer was changed constantly so the bees do not just learn to fly to one side of the maze. If honeybees can add, what else can they do? Bees also use a complex type of movement called the waggle dance to communicate geographical information to one other, another sophisticated ability packed into a brain the size of a sesame seed. The number of shapes varied between 1 and 5 and the colour of the shapes told the bee whether it needed to add one (blue) or subtract one (yellow) from the initial number. If the bee saw three blue shapes, for example, the "right" answer would be four blue shapes.

When Howard periodically tested the bees with an image that contained no elements versus an image that had one or more, the bees understood that the set of zero was the lower number - despite never having been exposed to an "empty set".

Honeybees are central place foragers - which means that a forager bee will return to a place if the location provides a good source of food.

The experiment, conducted by RMIT PhD researcher Scarlett Howard, involved training individual honey bees to recognize colors as symbolic representations for arithmetic problems. Eventually, over 100 learning trials, bees learnt that blue meant +1 while yellow meant -1. A 2010 study that Dyer also participated in suggests that bees can remember human faces using the same mechanisms as people. The bees weren't flawless, failing about 20 to 30 per cent of the time after around 100 trials, but they "performed at a level that was significantly different from chance", the authors wrote in the study.

When asked if something other than maths skills were influencing this observed behaviour, Dyer told Gizmodo that the study was "designed to formally test addition and subtraction", and that "a wide range of stimuli shapes and elements" were used to exclude other possible explanations.

Clint Perry, an expert on invertebrate intelligence from the Bee Sensory and Behavioural Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London, disagreed, saying the researchers didn't fully consider alternative strategies used by the bees.

He said the bees learnt to very accurately choose the correct option. Moreover, they began to actually perform the arithmetic.

To which he added: "The ability to add and subtract is a higher-level cognitive ability and to claim that an insect can do this is extraordinary and therefore requires extraordinary evidence. Bees are impressive and might be able to do arithmetic, but the results presented here do not convince me".

But the addition of bees to the list is a game-changer for scientists.

Researchers say that solving maths problems involves being able to manage numbers, and to use you long-term and short-term memory.