Brainy bees are whizzes at solving maths tests without using numbers – study

Jamie Harris, PA Science Technology Reporter
·2-min read

Honeybees are not only good at producing the sweet stuff from nectar but are also mini-maths geniuses, new research suggests.

Scientists have found that the buzzing insects are able to solve a type of maths test without any need for numbers and use visual cues instead.

In the study, honeybees were individually trained to identify placards showing different numbers of shapes.

Some learned to find a sugary reward at the placards that had the most shapes on display, while others learned to find the sugary treat at the placards showing the fewest number of shapes.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield noticed that once the bees got the hang of this rule, they were able to quickly spot the placard with the highest or lowest number of shapes on them in order to find the sugary treat.

To see whether they used non-numerical clues, the bees were then confronted with two placards showing the same number of shapes – but with one having shapes which had slightly longer edges.

With no sugary treat awaiting them on either this time, scientists expected the bees to head for each placard equally in search of a reward.

But instead – those trained to seek out the highest number went for the sign showing the highest level of continuous variables (those with the longer edges), and vice versa for those trained with the lowest number of shapes, suggesting the honeybees responded to continuous cues on the shapes and not the number of elements.

Dr HaDi MaBouDi, lead author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal, said: “The results of our study show that animals are incredibly clever and can solve tasks in effective and unexpected ways.

“This will be very practical in the future of artificial intelligence for designing smart machines based on animals that have evolved for some particular tasks.

“This doesn’t mean that bees or other non-verbal animals can’t understand numbers, but it does suggest that animals use non-numeric properties to solve the math problems they often face if such information is available. However, we hope that our study provides insight into better methods of exploring mathematical cognition in animals.”