Fascinating Study Shows How Bees Understand Basic Math Concepts

MELBOURNE — All that buzz in your garden may be more than just the sound of bees hard at work pollinating your flowers. There may be a math competition going on. A new study finds, believe it or not, that bees have the ability to perform basic mathematics, such as addition and subtraction.

Yes, bees can perform basic arithmetic, what’s your excuse?

Researchers from RMIT University in Australia, with help from French researchers, built upon their previous finding that honeybees actually understand the concept of zero by training them to gravitate towards images with the lowest quantity. So they sought to determine whether the insect can follow more complex mathematical concepts.

To accomplish this, the authors put together a specialized maze in which honeybees received a sugar water reward when they made a correct choice, and a bitter quinine solution when they made the wrong one.

After the bees flew into the Y-shaped maze, they were presented with a set of different shapes. The shapes were either blue, signifying the bee had to add one, or yellow, signifying the bee had to subtract one. The bee then viewed the initial number and fly through a hole into a “decision chamber,” where it would choose to fly to the right or the left side of the maze.

One side had an incorrect solution to the math problem, the other side had the correct solution. The correct answer changed randomly to not allow the bees to learn to visit one side of the maze. Though their own choices seemed to be made at random at the beginning of the experiment, after more than 100 trials and anywhere from four to seven hours, the insects eventually figured out the meaning of the shapes and were able to correctly add or subtract for each set.

“Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected,” says co-author Adrian Dyer, an associate professor at RMIT, in a university release.

With the finding, bees are now the newest members of the animals-that-understand-arithmetic club, which includes birds, human babies, some primates, and even spiders.

“These days, we learn as children that a plus symbol means you need to add two or more quantities, while a minus symbol means you subtract,” says co-author Scarlett Howard. “Our findings show that the complex understanding of maths symbols as a language is something that many brains can probably achieve, and helps explain how many human cultures independently developed numeracy skills.”

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

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