Bees and their mathematical brains

The discovery of the mathematical brain of bees, published in the magazine Science Advances, shows that not always in the animal kingdom you need a large brain to have the power to reason with numbers. Bees can perform complex operations such as addition and subtraction. They just need to be trained. A team of researchers from France and Australia has shown that these insects can be trained to perform small mathematical tasks, i.e. subtraction and addition through the association of colours.

Scientists have long wondered about the ability of animals to do mathematical operations and count. It wouldn’t seem such a rare skill: orang-utans, chimpanzees, pigeons, spiders and even very young children have it. And the bees? They can even discriminate against zero, distinguish what is bigger and smaller, carry out complex tasks.

Scientists have carried out a series of experiments to determine whether bees really have a mathematical brain. Before they were taught what was an addition and a subtraction, through mechanisms of rewarding in case of correct response with sugary solutions and punishment with bitter solutions in case of incorrect response. Then their skills were tested, that is, the bees were called upon to perform a task like that of training, but never done before, to understand how much they had learned.

During the two phases, training and testing, the researchers used a Y-shaped tool. They trained bees to associate blue with addition operations and yellow with subtraction operations: depending on the number of shapes (yellow or blue) shown at the entrance of the Y, bees could move towards one of the two arms, which were associated with different results, one right and one wrong. After this training phase, repeated a hundred times, the insects were tested showing them 3 shapes. In the tests, the researchers observed that in a percentage varying from 60 to 75% the bees made the correct response. This means that they had learned the arithmetic bases and exploited them in a similar but different context.

But in what way can mathematics for bees be useful? Although these are few tests, in only 14 bees, the study suggests that a mathematical brain can also develop into miniature brain structures. The short- and long-term memory skills that are the basis of arithmetic operations in nature are useful for bees to understand how to direct their behaviour in the search for food and to remember which flower is best to rest on.

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