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Bees have enough smarts to do math, study indicates

This spring, when you see a busy honeybee dancing around a flower, ponder this: That insect, despite its tiny brain, can do basic math.

That’s the finding from a group of Australian and French researchers, who published the research Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

“Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected,” said Adrian Dyer, a researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Researchers were able to design an experiment in which honeybees were able to correctly solve a simple math problem, subtracting or adding one from a quantity.

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Dyer said numerical operations like addition and subtraction are complex because they require two levels of processing.

“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 in a statement.

There is “considerable debate surrounding the ability of animals to have or learn complex number skills,” researchers said in the study. But they noted that research in recent decades has shown that babies, some primates, birds, and even spiders can add and/or subtract. Now honeybees have made the list.

The researchers were building on a previous study in which they found bees understood the concept of zero.

PhD researcher Scarlett Howard, who conducted the addition/subtraction experiment, said in a statement, “Our findings show that the complex understanding of math’s symbols as a language is something that many brains can probably achieve.”

How the bees took math tests
How the bees took math testsScarlett Howard

Here’s how the experiment worked: Bees were sent into a Y-shaped maze. One branch of the maze contained sugar water, while the other contained a bitter-tasting quinine solution. So the bees were motivated.

When a bee flew into the entrance of the maze, it would see a set of elements, between one and five shapes. The shapes were either blue, which meant the bee had to add, or yellow, which meant the bee had to subtract.

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After viewing the initial number of shapes, the bee would fly into a “decision chamber,” where it could choose to fly to the left or right branch of the maze after looking at two more sets of shapes. The correct branch to get sugar water would be marked by the initial number of shapes plus one, in the case of blue, or the initial number of shapes minus one, in the case of yellow.

Bottom line: Any bee that could answer questions like “What’s 5 minus 1?” or “What’s 2 plus 1?” could find its way down the proper path and get a tasty treat. And they did, researchers said.

“We show that honeybees, with a miniature brain, can learn to use blue and yellow as symbolic representations for addition or subtraction. In a free-flying environment, individual bees used this information to solve unfamiliar problems involving adding or subtracting one element from a group of elements,” the study said.

“Given that honeybees and humans are separated by over 400 million years of evolution, our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be more accessible to nonhuman animals than previously suspected,” the study said.