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Hello, hive mind: Bees can do basic arithmetic, and new study finds



The oval-shaped brain of a honeybee is roughly the size of a single sesame seed. It contains less than 1 million neurons, while the human brain contains 100 billion

A team of entomologists is asking what all those extra nerve cells are good for after finding that bees can do the kind of vital math once thought to distinguish humans and the primate animals they most closely resemble

Many animals display some degree of quantitative understanding as they are forage and fight, hoard and hide and find their way back home. Counting, for example, is pervasive

But bees can do something more, according to a paper published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed Science Advances journal. They can add and subtract, placing one of the world's leading pollinators in the venerable company of monkeys, parrots and, yes, spiders ̵

1; the cognitive A-list of the animal kingdom.

The findings contribute to a growing body of evidence that the brains of insects are more powerful than once thought – not only of a vague numerical sense but of the kind of learning and complex memory tasks that make arithmetic possible. It also sheds light on the evolution of quantitative abilities in other species, decoupling numerical understanding from human language.

"A small biological processing system can perform quite complex things," said Scarlett Howard, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at

The small neural network employed by bees, she said in an interview with The Washington Post, points to a possible alternative to high-energy computing, suggesting that artificial intelligence should seek to model natural systems "These have evolved into complex and challenging environments."

The research builds on the discovery of the same researchers last year that bees understand nothing. more than "and" less than "were also able to order zero at the beginning of a numerical continuum – a capacity that put them on

In the new study, conducted last year at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in southeastern Australia, the researchers devised a Y-shaped maze to train 14 bees to add and subtract.

The first sight encountered by the insects was a sample set of one, two, four or five shapes – never three.

Then, they flew into a "decision chamber," they were face-to-face with two new sets of shapes

] If the shapes were blue, then the right choice for the bee would be to fly in the direction of the option

They were rewarded with a sugar solution for correct answers and punished with a bitter-tasting substance for misfires

At first, the insects made random decisions, but across 100 trials each, (19659015) The task required two cognitive feats at once: the long-term recollection of the color rule and the short-term analysis of an unfamiliar number of shapes

Although every bee seems to learn diff erently, the population showed signs of mastery somewhere between the 40th and 70th test, Howard said.

Then, the bees were put to the test, faced with a shape they had never seen before, as well as a novel number of sample elements, three. Each bee performed four tests, each consisting of 10 trips through the maze.

They have not been able to master one command better than the other, although other species have shown signs of favoring addition, Howard said. She added that the results were conclusive enough that they felt confident with their hive of 14 bees. Eight to 12 is considered statistically sound

The new evidence of honeybee's computational skills comes as its number dwindle under mounting threats from pests and pathogens. Beekeepers in the United States lost 40 percent of their managed colonies between the spring of 2017 and the spring of 2018, in line with the wider decline of the invertebrate populations, which scientists have linked to climate change

. activities of honeybees alone

"A honeybee brain contains less than 1 million neurons, so the evidence that a bee can learn to use a mathematical operator is very important for our understanding of how big brains like ours may have plausibly evolved the "said Adrian Dyer, one of the study's authors and an expert on imaging and information processing at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

The discovery casts doubt on the idea that numerical understanding is inherent in humans, who are separated from honeybees by more than 400 million years of evolution, as the paper notes. The result suggests instead that bees, nonhuman animals and preverbal people may be "biologically tuned for complex numerical tasks," and capacity honed through the struggle for survival in "complex environments that have forced them to use numbers and quantify," Howard said.

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"We are not the only sophisticated ones," she said.

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