The honey bee has many talents that go far beyond the mere making of honey from nectar.

Researchers and scientists at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science in the UK, along with their international collaborators, have discovered that honeybees are mini math wizards, according to new research.

The Sheffield study is the first to propose a new method that carefully assesses non-numerical continuous cues. Most previous studies attempt to control at least one non-numerical cue.

The most fascinating revelation is that they can do math without any need for actual numbers, by using continuous, non-numerical cues to solve math problems.

These most beloved insects need no numbers. Instead, in order to obtain a sweet treat that lies at the other end of the puzzle, they rely on visual cues.   

This highlights the concept of a whole new type of numerical cognition in insects.

This unrelated 5:10-minute video by VOX discusses how bees know what zero is. We blogged about brainy bees here



Back to the theme of this blog post... the next step was that individual honeybees were trained to identify placards that exhibited different numbers of shapes. For some bees, the sweet sugary reward was at the placards with the largest number of shapes on display. Others learned to find their treats at the placards with the least number of shapes.

The researchers found that as soon as the bees caught on to the rule, they quickly spotted the correct placard with either the highest or lowest number of shapes so they could receive their rewards.

To establish whether the bees were using non-numerical clues, they were presented with two placards showing the same number of shapes, but the shapes on one placard differed slightly due to longer edges, convex hull, and spatial frequency.

It was anticipated by the scientists that, under these circumstances, the bees would head to each placard equally searching for their rewards. In fact, there was no sweet sugary treat awaiting them on either placard this time.

Instead, the bees that were trained to identify the highest number went to the sign with the highest level of continuous variables (those with longer edges), and the bees trained to identify the lowest number went to the other placard with shapes that looked like ‘less’ since they didn’t have longer edges.

This suggests that honeybees respond to continuous cues on the shapes, not the number of elements. Since visual cues are computationally easier for a bee brain to process, it is a more efficient way for bees solve the task. Determining how such a miniature brain solves numerical tasks provides invaluable insights.  

Lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is Dr. HaDi MaBouDi. He commented that the results of the study indicate that animals are incredibly clever and can solve tasks in effective and unexpected ways. The honeybee brain has evolved to distinguish between numerical values using visual cues rather than by complex cognitive processing of numbers.

This realization will be very practical in the future for designing smart, sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) based on animals that have evolved for specific tasks. For instance, drones that navigate like honeybees by quickly scanning and evaluating their environment.   

This does not mean that bees, or other non-verbal animals, can’t understand numbers. It suggests that animals solve math problems they may face by using non-numeric properties when such information is available.

The scientists who conducted this study hope that it provides greater insight into better ways to explore mathematical cognition in animals.