London – As if helping to feed the world by pollinating plants weren’t clever enough, it seems bees are also mathematicians.
In an experiment with far-reaching implications, scientists taught honeybees to recognise colours as plus or minus symbols.
They then went on to solve basic mathematical problems involving addition and subtraction. They completed the tasks with a success rate of up to 75 percent.
Understanding how a tiny bee brain can do arithmetic could lead to better artificial intelligence systems, according to the Australian and French researchers.
Professor Adrian Dyer, from RMIT University in Melbourne, said: "Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected. 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."
The research developed from the discovery that bees appear to understand the concept of zero. The scientists then set up an experiment to investigate whether the insects had a deeper understanding of maths.
The researchers trained 14 bees to enter a Y-shaped maze consisting of a tunnel with two alternative exits. When they flew in they saw different shapes coloured either yellow or blue as numbers’ arranged in sums.
The bees were trained to follow correct sums to get a reward of sugary water. Those that followed a route marked by an incorrect sum received a bitter solution.
Training took place over 100 trials, during which the bees made random choices until they learnt how to get the correct solution.
The scientists pointed out that solving even basic maths problems requires the ability to understand abstract rules.
"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," said Prof Dyer.