The world’s little pollinators are smarter than we’ve known as a new study of 14 honeybees shows that these flyers may be able to do math.
In research published today in Science Advances, a group of Australian researchers led by RMIT University professor Scarlett R. Howard presented the bees with a series of problems. In the battery of 100 tests, blue represented addition and yellow subtraction.
The bees were put into a Y-shaped decision tree maze, baited with either sugar for right answers or quinine for wrong answers. “After entering the Y-maze, bees would be in the initial chamber where they could view the sample number,” the paper states. “To solve the task, the bees were required to either add or subtract the value of one to this sample number depending on the color of the elements.”
Each of the tests had a different number of yellow or blue lights. The bees then had to choose between yellow and blue puzzles. If, for example, at a blue light they were presented with two different options, the bees understood to choose the lesser value, while at yellow lights they would choose the greater value.
The bees seemingly understood that they were to choose between more and less based on the color of the light in a way the paper calls “significantly different from chance.”
The study also points out the kind of thinking required—that bees must understand the idea of less versus more through a form of symbolic representation, and that they have to retain memory of said symbols when the test was repeated. The researchers believe that it could aid the bees in identifying and retaining knowledge of the best flowers to sustain their hive.
As the paper points out, it’s not the first sign of complex intelligence from bees, who seem to have spatial awareness of direction, size, and similarity. They’ve also previously been able to demonstrate rudimentary math skills, such as counting.
So instead of a “math bowl” and a “spelling bee,” maybe it should be the other way around—just to make things right.