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Bees and Basic Math

Researchers from RMIT University have found that honey bees understand addition and subtraction- using colours instead of plus and minus signs.

Other organisms have shown the ability to process numbers as well. Lions live in prides and have to keep track of their numbers, as well as keep track of the number of lions in enemy prides, as they only attack enemy prides with fewer members than their own. In a similar fashion, hyenas were able to determine the amount of noises made from other individuals, but they weren’t exactly counting, per se, it is more of a determination of quantity. Wolves have shown some ability to count, but dogs are only able to distinguish between 0 and 1, indicating that they lost their counting ability sometime after being domesticated. Frogs use counting for species identification as some species croak a certain number of croaks in a row. Birds are advanced in counting, including chicks who demonstrate understanding of number line systems, and especially an African grey parrot named Alex, who was able to count to six. Chimpanzees have been researched intensively and seem to be the most advanced subjects when it comes to math, as primates have an enlarged neocortex, the part of the brain associated with higher cognitive function.

However, bees have much smaller brains than these other organisms studied, so their ability to solve basic math problems is an impressive phenomenon.

The researchers working on this project based their research on other insects that have been able to count to four and the notion that bees understand the number zero. An advanced cognition with long-term memory to remember the rules of math and short-term memory to work with the numbers is required to solve math equations, abilities that we now know honey bees possess. This discovery has the possibility of advancing rapid learning in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

14 honey bees were trained to associate blue to addition and yellow to subtraction and were then placed in a maze shaped like a Y with coloured shapes at two ends. They were shown pictures of a number of shapes of one colour at a time, and then set off in the maze. For blue shapes, if they chose to go to the end of the maze that had more blue shapes than the picture they were shown at the start of the maze, they were rewarded with sugar. For yellow shapes, if they chose to go to the end of the maze that had fewer yellow shapes than the picture they were shown at the start of the maze, they were rewarded with sugar. If they made the wrong choice, they were given a bitter solution. Of course, the bees preferred the sugar, so they quickly learned to go to the correct end of the maze to get their reward. However, the shapes at the end of the maze were changed repeatedly to avoid the bees simply learning to go to one side of the maze to get their reward. The bees learned that blue meant to add 1 and yellow meant to subtract 1 in just 4 to 7 hours!

After their training period, the bees successfully completed the maze 63 to 72% of the time, much better than if their choices were due to chance. The numbers of shapes used in the training period were different from the numbers of shapes used in the experimental period to show that the bees were not just memorizing which numbers were right, they actually showed the ability to understand addition and subtraction- an incredible feat for organisms with brains much smaller than our own.

We learn to use visual symbols to do math, while the bees used abstract symbols in the form of coloured shapes, a different technique with a similar outcome. This gives an understanding of how different cultures and societies around the world develop the same or similar math skills using different methods, indicating that brains can understand math in many different forms.

Although this discovery is an impressive phenomenon, a big question is still left unanswered: Can other organisms understand complex numbers and the skills associated with them? Some species other than humans have been known to understand quantities while foraging, but basic math problems require more intelligence than understanding quantities. It is possible that the bees could use arithmetic in their lives for survival and everyday life, such as navigating how far they have traveled, but since the bees took time to train, it is likely that their brains have the capacity to learn new concepts and obtain problem-solving skills.


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