The Math Behind Bee-autiful Creatures

June 21, 2019

"When we're looking for solutions to complex problems, we often find that nature has already done the job far more elegantly and efficiently.”  — Associate Professor Adrian Dyer, RMIT University (Melbourne)


The world is full of intricacies and mysteries left unexplored. On the subject of nature and the capacity of potential in organisms, it is fascinating to be able to discover the connections that can be made in non-human organisms. Separated by over 600 million years of evolution, humans have on average 86 billion neurons compared to the mere one million neurons in bees. Despite this, a new research study has shown that honeybees are cognitively capable of connecting symbols to numbers. In 2018 studies, it was discovered that bees understand the concept of zero and can do basic arithmetic in mathematics. Scientists have known that animals, such as monkeys and birds, are also able to understand the concept of zero and connect symbols to numbers, however they were unsure of this potential in insects.


In this initial study, individual honeybees were tagged for identification and lured into a testing mechanism for observance. The bees were then trained to select an image that displayed the lowest number of elements, with the incentive of receiving a sugar reward. When there were two elements (ex. two bananas) displayed next to an image of three elements, the bees chose the image with two. After going through several examples of this, they were then presented with an “empty set” or a display with no elements, which the bees then selected. This demonstrated that they understand the concept of “nothing” despite never having been presented with an empty set beforehand.


In this new research study done by the same group, bees were placed in a Y-shaped maze and divided into two groups. The first group was tested to match a symbol to various elements of the same quantity (example: matching ‘2’ to two bananas, two apples, etc.) The second group was tested on the same, but in reverse order. The two groups were then trained to swap the order in which they matched elements. However, it was discovered that after swapping the order in which the bees had to match elements, they found more difficulty. Although this is the case, the fact that they were able to do the initial matching show that bees are capable of more complex and cognitive processing within their miniature brains. It provides implications into the potential of mathematical calculations in organisms other than just humans and animals.


As children, it takes us a few years to learn the concept of zero and our basic arithmetics. As Associate Professor Dyer says — we take this for granted. However, the notion of actually being able to recognize and understand what a symbol such as the number ‘3’ can represent actually requires a significant amount of cognitive ability that is impressive and intriguing to have been found in honeybees.


"Discovering how such complex numerical skills can be grasped by miniature brains will help us understand how mathematical and cultural thinking evolved in humans, and possibly, other animals," Dyer says.


With due time, it wouldn’t be surprising to find other organisms that can perform the same mathematical and cognitive tasks. We live in a magical world with so much untapped potential, and it’s beautiful to see how far we can go with its evolution.




RMIT University. "Bees can link symbols to numbers, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2019.


RMIT University. "Bees understand the concept of zero." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 June 2018.


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