[Research shows the insects understand both subtraction and
addition.] [https://portside.org/] 

 HONEYBEES CAN DO MATHS   [https://portside.org/node/19333] 

 

 Tanya Loos 
 February 7, 2019
Cosmos [https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/honeybees-can-do-maths] 

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 _ Research shows the insects understand both subtraction and
addition. _ 

 Yellow means plus. Honeybees understand symbolic representations of
mathematical functions., Antagain/Getty Images 

 

Honeybees (_Apis mellifera_) are capable of arithmetic, showing
proficiency in addition and subtraction, new research reveals. The
tiny bee brain is capable of numerical skills and short-term working
memory previously attributed to the larger brains of some vertebrates.

The study of animals’ ability to use numbers, or numerosity
[https://dx.doi.org/10.1038%2Fncomms12536], is an important facet of
neuroscience, because it helps researchers better understand the
relationship between number skills and language in the human brain.

Many species of animal need to assess quantity – the concept of
“more or fewer” – in their daily lives, while foraging, for
instance, or moving in flocks. Exact numerical calculations that arise
from addition and subtraction are less straightforward, but have been
demonstrated in some vertebrate species, particularly primates
[https://www.livescience.com/2160-monkeys-math-humans.html] and parrots
[http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/02/alex-the-parrots-last-experiment-shows-his-mathematical-genius.html]. 

The math skills of invertebrates are proving surprising, with the
honeybee a model for insect smarts. The bees respond well to training,
can learn a number of rules, and distinguish between concepts such as
left/right, above/below and other simple problems. And in 2018,
Scarlett Howard from RMIT University Melbourne, Australia, and
colleagues revealed that honeybees could grasp the concept
[https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/bees-understand-the-concept-of-zero] of
zero.

In this latest study, Howard returned to issue, and used 14 specially
trained honeybees to further explore numerical cognition in a very
small brain. 

She and colleagues demonstrated that the insects can learn to use blue
and yellow as symbolic representations for addition and subtraction.
Furthermore, the trained bees can use this arithmetic to solve
unfamiliar problems.

Free flying bees were trained to enter a simple Y-shaped maze and view
a sample stimulus which could be blue or yellow, and comprised a
number of shapes. The bees then flew into an atrium called the
decision chamber, and choose between two possible options. If the
initial stimulus was blue, the bee had to choose the option that
contained one less element – signifying subtraction.

If the stimulus was yellow, which represented addition, the correct
choice with the sugar reward would be represented with a visual
pattern with one shape added.

In more than 100 trials, with 108 different patterns for addition and
108 patterns for subtraction, comprising one to five elements of four
different shapes (squares, diamonds, circles and triangles), the bees
chose the correct option between 60% and 75% of the time – well
above chance.

The authors conclude that advanced numerical cognition is present in
the small insect brain of a honeybee.

“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,” Howard says.

“It would be valuable to examine bee performance on large number
quantities to determine whether they could use approximation or exact
arithmetic to solve similar large number arithmetic problems.”

The research
[http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/2/eaav0961] was published
in the journal _Science Advances_.

_TANYA LOOS [https://cosmosmagazine.com/contributors/tanya-loos] is
an ecologist and science writer based in regional Victoria,
Australia._

_Cosmos is a science magazine produced in Australia_

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