Some Truly Mad Scientists Have Taught Bees To Recognise & Understand Numbers

I couldn’t tell you why, but I find bees to be inherently funny. Maybe it’s that the word ‘bees’ is fun to say, or maybe it’s that they add an element of the strange to any news story they are involved in — whether it is the 180,000 bees that were in the roof of Notre Dame and survived the fire or the Spanish couple who discovered that the buzzing they had been hearing for months was a hive of 80,000 bees hidden in their bedroom walls or a truck in Texas crashing and letting loose millions of bees.

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Unless it’s in regards to declining bee populations, I am always just perfectly thrilled to see ‘bees’ pop up in a headline, and today might well take the cake, with RMIT issuing a press release about teaching bees to recognise numbers.

From the same French-Australian team that taught bees to understand zero and basic maths comes the paper Symbolic representation of numerosity by honeybees (Apis mellifera): matching characters to small quantities, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The paper outlines the results of a study into whether honeybees could be taught to recognise the symbolic representation of numbers, which involved putting bees in a Y-shaped maze and training them to correctly match the symbol representing a number to that same number of objects. The bees were then tested to see if they could do this when the number remained the same but the object changed.

Details of the experimental set up used to train and test the bees.
Source: RMIT.

A different set of bees was trained to do the reverse — match a number of objects to the symbol representing that number. Tests were then conducted to see if the bees from the first group could complete the second task and vice versa, to no avail, according to researcher Dr Scarlett Howard.

This suggests that number processing and understanding of symbols happens in different regions in bee brains, similar to the way separate processing happens in the human brain,” Howard said. “Our results show honeybees are not at the same level as the animals that have been able to learn symbols as numbers and perform complex tasks.

20 honeybees were trained for these tasks, which involved giving the bees a sweet, tasty sucrose solution if they made the correct choice, or a bitter quinine solution if they made the wrong one.

Associate professor Adrian Dyer said that the study could have valuable insights for future AI research: “When we’re looking for solutions to complex problems, we often find that nature has already done the job far more elegantly and efficiently. Understanding how tiny bee brains manage information opens paths to bio-inspired solutions that use a fraction of the power of conventional processing systems.

Bees. What a trip.

You can read the full paper right here.