Bees Can Do Simple Math
Bees understand the concept of zero.
The tiny bee brain can do arithmetic.
As amazing as we already know bees are, researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia made a groundbreaking announcement earlier in 2019 that bees can do math.
This challenges our understanding of the relationship between brain power and brain size.
After French and Australian researchers concluded that honeybees understand the concept of zero, they decided to test whether bees can do arithmetic calculations.
Associate Professor Adrian Dyer says it requires two levels of processing to complete complex numerical operations like addition and subtraction. He says the first level is holding the rules of adding and subtracting in your long-term memory, the second step is mentally manipulating sets of numbers with your short-term memory.
Bees can be taught to recognize colors as symbolic representations for addition and subtraction and use this information to solve math problems.
Researchers are excited about these far-reaching implications for Artificial Intelligence (AI), since a honeybee’s miniature brain can grasp basic mathematical operations quickly in a few training session. A massive brain is not necessary for math.
Here’s the experiment that trained the bees:
Scarlett Howard, a PhD researcher at the Bio Inspired Digital Sensing-Lab (BIDS-Lab) in RMIT, conducted the experiment.
She trained 14 honeybees to individually visit a Y-shaped maze, which consisted of a tunnel and two exits, where they had to make a choice.
Flying into the entrance, the bee sees a set of elements, between 1-5 shapes like a circle, diamond, triangle or square.
If the shapes were blue, the bee had to add. If the shapes were yellow, the bee had to subtract.
After seeing the initial number, the bee flew through a hole into a “decision chamber” where it could choose to fly to the right or left side of the maze. One side had the incorrect solution to the problem and the other side had the correct solution of plus or minus one.
If they made the correct choice they got a sugar water reward, and if their choice was incorrect they received a bitter-tasting quinine solution.
The answers were changed out randomly throughout the experiment, so the bees wouldn’t just learn which side of the maze to visit to get the sweet reward.
Honeybees return willingly to a place with a good food source, so they returned to the experimental set-up frequently to collect nutrition and learn.
Initially, the bees chose randomly until they figured out how to solve the problem. Over a period of 100 learning trials, it took 4-7 hours for the bees to learn that blue meant +1 and yellow meant -1.
Each bee was given 2 subtraction and 2 addition operations. The bees completed the tasks and chose the correct answer 60-75% of the time. Then the bees could apply the rules to new numbers.
Scarlett Howard commented that the historical flourishing of human societies such as the Egyptians and Babylonians as far back as 2000 BCE, was due in large part to the vital ability to use basic arithmetic.
She believes the experiment’s findings show that the complex understanding of math symbolism as a language can be achieved by many brains and it helps explain how numerous cultures developed numeracy skills independently.
Scientists are realizing that many more non-human animals than previously suspected have advanced numerical cognition. Other creatures with adding and/or subtracting abilities are birds, babies, spiders and some primates, according to a Science Advances list.
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