Math can be deeply complex and elegant. It can explain how the planets move through space and how the particles that make up the universe interact.
And while honeybees can’t yet write out Einstein’s general theory of relativity, new evidence suggests the clever little pollinators can perform simple addition and subtraction after a few math classes.
Published in Science Advances on Feb. 6, a team of researchers from Australia and France have shown that bees can perform simple arithmetic, adding and subtracting small numbers by studying colour-coded shapes.
“Our study provides an important building block for understanding how brains can evolve an ability to do maths,” says Adrian Dyer, a co-author on the study from RMIT University.
To test the buzzers’ ability to perform arithmetic, the team used a three-chambered maze shaped like a Y, training bees to enter through a hole into a small chamber where they would see their first stimulus: blue or yellow shapes on a plain, grey background. 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. The bee then flew into a subsequent chamber which presented both a correct option and an incorrect option.
To train the bees, the correct option rewarded the critters with a drop of tasty sugar solution — a delightful dessert for the bee. On the other hand, selecting the incorrect solution resulted in a nasty drop of quinine — like a slab of Brussels sprouts slathered in chocolate.
The testing procedure itself focused on 14 bees undergoing four tests of 10 choices. The tests themselves were “nonreinforced”, so they didn’t receive reward or punishment when selecting their “answers” during testing. Because the bees were subjected to two answers each time, the expectation is that — purely by chance — they would select the correct answer 50 percent of the time.
But the bees performed significantly better than chance would predict, selecting the correct answer around 65 percent of the time.
It’s a notable result because processing arithmetic demands “complex cognitive processes” requiring the use of long-term and short-term memory. We may see addition or subtraction as simple, but it requires different parts of our brain to store information and understand order.
“The study does reshape our understanding of arithmetic,” says Dyer. “Certainly basic addition and subtraction can be enabled by a brain with less than 1 million neurons.”
That finding suggests that the honeybees miniature brain can, at the very least, use symbols to add and subtract numbers. Honeybees and humans are separated by some 400 million years of evolution, but the team states that their findings suggest “numerical cognition may be more accessible to nonhuman animals than previously suspected.”
The research team has good form in bee math, too. They had previously shown that, like Jon Snow, bees know nothing — or more specifically, they can understand the concept of zero — an ability that seems to be fairly rare in the animal kingdom. Next, they hope to test whether the bees can deal with slightly more difficult arithmetic. They aren’t going to be throwing long division at the insects any time soon, but they will investigate whether the bees can process larger numbers.