Mathematical bees. The insect, not the competition. They know their numbers!

The Guardian demonstrates mathematical skills in creatures that don’t even have internal skeletons, with Australian research that shows bees handling some rather sophisticated calculations… for insects:

Researchers behind the study have previously found that honeybees can apparently understand the concept of zero, and learn to correctly indicate which of two groups of objects is the smaller.

But now they say insects can learn to carry out exact numerical calculations such as adding and subtracting a given number.

“Their brain can manage a long-term rule and applying that to a mathematical problem to come up with a correct answer,” said Dr Adrian Dyer, co-author of the research from RMIT University in Australia. “That is a different type of number processing to spontaneous quantity judgments.”

Writing in the journal Science Advances, Dyer and colleagues describe how their research involved releasing bees into a simple maze in which they were shown a picture of a small number of coloured shapes. After flying through a hole, the bees were presented with two further images showing a different number of shapes.

When the shapes in the set up were blue, insects that made a beeline for the image with one more shape than in the initial picture were offered a sugary drink. When the shapes were yellow, they were rewarded for flying to the image with one fewer shape. If the bee flew to the “incorrect” image, they were given a quinine solution – which is unpleasant to bees.

Fourteen bees were involved in the experiment and each completed 100 of the training exercises, with the shapes and numbers – up to a maximum of five – chosen at random from a pool of possibilities.

Each bee was then tested 10 times on two different scenarios for each colour.

Crucially, the first image the bees saw in the test setups contained three shapes. Neither the number nor the particular shape used had been presented to the bees as the initial picture during training, meaning they could not choose the “correct” answer from memory.

The results showed that the bees did better on the tests than chance, getting the correct answers between 64% and 72% of the time, depending on the test.

“It is not that every bee could do this [spontaneously], but we could teach them to do it,” said Dyer.

Dyer said the prevalence of numerical competence across the animal kingdom was “suspicious”, leading him to believe it might be a widespread phenomenon in animals that aids survival.