The secret brains of bees: Study finds that bees can add and subtract

Photo credit: stanze via Flickr

The common honeybee (Apis melifera) is a fascinating creature. Bees are not only among the most common pollinators of plants all over the world, they also make honey, which has been harvested by humans for its naturally high sugar content as far back as 8000 years ago, possibly even further.

Of insects that form colonies, the complexity of social dynamics in bees is second only to termites. Entomologists (insect scientists) are learning more all the time about what these tiny animals are capable of. It was only five years ago that scientists at Sussex University cracked the secret of the “waggle dance” – an intricate system by which bees communicate the location of food sources by moving their bodies in certain patterns and directions. Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia have recently confirmed another surprising skill of these crafty insects: arithmetic.

The experiment involved placing bees in a Y shaped maze. When the bee entered the maze, she (all worker bees are female) would see a setup with 1-5 shapes. The colour would indicate which operation the bee would need to perform. Blue for addition, yellow for subtraction. After viewing the problem, the bee would fly into a decision chamber with paths to the left and right corresponding to correct and incorrect answers. The correct chamber had a solution of sugar water. The incorrect chamber had a bitter-tasting quinine solution. The answers were continuously randomised to ensure the bees were not just learning to go to one side of the maze.

At the beginning of the experiment, bees made random choices until they could work out how to solve the problem. Honeybees will go back to a place if the location provides a good source of food, so the bees returned repeatedly to the experimental set-up to collect nutrition and continue learning. Eventually, over 100 learning trials, bees learned that blue meant +1, while yellow meant -1. The bees could then apply the rules to new numbers. They got the answers right between 63 per cent and 72 per cent of the time. This is much better than random guesses would allow.

Solving maths problems requires a sophisticated level of cognition, involving the complex mental management of numbers, long-term rules and short-term working memory. RMIT’s Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said that these processes are complex because they involve two levels of cognition.

“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,” he said.

This is a lot of brain power packed into a miniscule animal. The brain of a bee is 20,000 times smaller than that of a human. Professor Dyer suggests that if a brain this small can perform arithmetic, this could have larger implications for artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

“If maths doesn’t require a massive brain, there might also be new ways for us to incorporate interactions of both long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning of new problems.” Dyer said.

Whether we will develop some innovative AI system based off bee brains remains to be seen. But in the meantime, bees continue to prove themselves much more complex than their size would suggest.

This post was written by Miles Martin and edited by Ella Mercer.

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