Bees can Do Basic Mathematics

Bees can Do Basic Mathematics

Bees can Do Basic Mathematics
Image Credits: Barstool Sports

Scientists reveal that bees can add or subtract provided they are given proper training.  

Do you find even basic mathematics hard? The humble bees around us would politely disagree. According to a study published in ‘Science Advances’, the scientists from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) reported that bees can add or subtract if trained properly. The news is surprising because they have a tiny brain which contains less than a million neurons. Scientists hope that they can understand the relation between brain size and brain power as there is a massive gap of 400 million years between the evolution of humans and bees. The lead author of the study, Scarlett R. Howard mentioned an important application of this research by saying,

“This could give us insight on how to build more simple computers that can still process at a higher level. Perhaps making computers more energy efficient.”

When we are young, we learn that the plus symbol means addition and the minus one means subtraction. To solve mathematical problems which include these operations, we use both long-term and short-term memory. Each of these mathematical operators has rules on how these work. We store these rules in the long-term memory while the numerical values being operated on are stored in the short-term memory.

Training of Bees

Well, you can’t give bees homework, so scientists tried a different approach. 14 honeybees were allowed to fly freely and were shown colored symbols in an attempt to teach the bees to recognize colors. The two colors were blue and yellow representing addition and subtraction, respectively. A Y-shaped maze was designed for the bees to pass through. At the entrance, several blue and yellow shapes were placed where the bees could view them. As they cross the opening, they have to decide between two options. If they see the blue shapes first, the bees move to the decision chamber where two blue shapes are present. If the viewed shapes were yellow, they would move into the room with one less yellow shape.

100 trials took place and each time the bees chose correctly, they were rewarded with a drop of sugar water. For wrong choices, the bees were punished by giving them a drop of quinine solution. After the testing phase, tests were carried out without rewards. Surprisingly, the success rate for choosing the correct shapes was between 63% and 72%. Initially, the bees were tested for the numbers between 1 and 5 with addition and subtraction. However, it is believed that the bees may very well be able to solve problems with larger numbers.

Intelligence in Other Animals

There are many animals that exhibit intelligence for various tasks like foraging but complex mathematics can only be done by a few. Octopuses are smart enough to open jar lids and are adept at learning new skills. Other animals such as Chimpanzees, dolphins, pigs, parrots, elephants, and rats also exhibit intelligence on a certain level. Many animals are adaptive and learn new skills according to their needs. Termites, for example, build mounts that fulfill their needs exactly.

The Significance of this Finding

Addition and subtraction may not be the skills bees need in their daily lives but the cognitive skills required for mathematics are likely helpful for bees during their foraging adventures. Scientists believe bees may be able to remember and recognize flowers by shape, size, and color. Although most humans don’t find simple addition and subtraction difficult, these are indeed complex questions because they require processing on two different levels. For this reason, this study is of great importance to Neurobiology. The findings show that learning symbolic arithmetic is possible on miniature brains. If we combine this with Artificial Intelligence (AI), new ways of incorporating long-term rules can be developed which can improve existing AI. Adrian Dyer, an Associate Professor at RMIT, said,

“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. On top of this, our bees also used their short-term memories to solve arithmetic problems, as they learned to recognize plus or minus as abstract concepts rather than being given visual aids. Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected.”

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