RMIT University

Bees ‘get’ addition and subtraction, new study suggests

If math is the language of the universe, bees may have just uttered their first words. New research suggests these busybodies of the insect world are capable of addition and subtraction—using colors in the place of plus and minus symbols.

In the animal kingdom, the ability to count—or at least distinguish between differing quantities—isn’t unusual: It has been seen in frogs, spiders, and even fish. But solving equations using symbols is rare air, so far only achieved by famously brainy animals such as chimpanzees and African grey parrots.

Enter the honey bee (Apis mellifera). Building on prior research that says the social insects can count to four and understand the concept of zero, researchers wanted to test the limits of what their tiny brains can do.

Scientists trained 14 bees to link the colors blue and yellow to addition and subtraction, respectively. They placed the bees at the entrance of a Y-shaped maze, where they were shown several shapes in either yellow or blue. If the shapes were blue, bees got a reward if they went to the end of the maze with one more blue shape (the other end had one less blue shape); if the shapes were yellow, they got a reward if they went to the end of the maze with one less yellow shape.

The testing worked the same way: Bees that “subtracted” one shape when they saw yellow, or “added” one shape when they saw blue were considered to have aced the test. The bees got the right answer 63% to 72% of the time, depending on the type of equation and the direction of the right answer—much better than random guesses would allow—the researchers report today in Science Advances.

Though the results came from just 14 bees, researchers say the advance is exciting. If a brain about 20,000 times smaller than ours can perform arithmetic using symbols, it could pave the way to novel approaches in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Just don’t ask the bees to do your homework anytime soon.