Bees can solve basic maths problems

Scarlett Howard
How the bees took math tests

"Zero is a hard concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily - it takes children a few years to learn", said Adrian Dyer, from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

It's a notable result because processing arithmetic demands "complex cognitive processes" requiring the use of long-term and short-term memory.

Although the ability to perform arithmetic like adding and subtracting is not simple, it is vital in human societies.

"Thus, our "bee school" within the Y-maze allowed the bees to learn how to use arithmetic operators to add or subtract". In the bottom register we see 760 donkeys on the left and 974 goats on the right.

Armed with this knowledge, they pushed on with experiments and discovered that these smart little creatures can also perform basic mathematics.

The bees completed the tasks with a success rate of up to 75 per cent.

Honeybees will go back to a place if the location provides a good source of food, so the bees returned repeatedly to the experimental set-up to collect nutrition and continue learning.

The bees were trained to choose an image with the lowest number of elements in order to receive a reward of sugar solution.

Initially, the insects made random choices, being rewarded with sugar water or penalized with bitter-tasting quinine solution. For example, the bees learned to choose three elements when presented with three vs. four; or two elements when presented with two vs. three. "Saying something like 1, 2, 3, you can count like a bee - it puts in their minds, well, if a bee can do it, it must be pretty easy, I can do it too".

Each colour represented a different mathematical operation - blue for "add one" and yellow for "subtract one".

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More shapes presented at the mouth of each fork represented the correct and incorrect answer to the problem. These elements were changed randomly throughout the experiment to prevent the bees from getting wise to what was going on.

The experiment, conducted by RMIT PhD researcher Scarlett Howard, involved training individual honey bees to recognize colors as symbolic representations for arithmetic problems. After over 100 trials, the bees learned that blue meant +1 and yellow meant -1.

In research published in the journal Science, Australian and French researchers tested whether honey bees can rank numerical quantities and understand that zero belongs at the lower end of a sequence of numbers.

You've heard of spelling bees, but have you ever heard of subtracting ones?

Numerical operations such as addition and subtraction are complex questions because they require two levels of processing. The second level requires the bee to mentally manipulate numerical attributes in working memory. At the entrance of the maze are 1 to 5 blue or yellow shapes, which means that they have to either add or subtract.

There is a lot of interest in AI, and how well computers can enable self-learning of novel problems. This suggests there may be new ways to incorporate interactions of both long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning of new problems.

"Our findings show that the complex understanding of math symbols as a language is something that many brains can probably achieve, and helps explain how many human cultures independently developed numeracy skills".

"The simple answer is "very small", according to Associate Professor Adrian Dyer, the top bee expert from RMIT University in Melbourne.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence.

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