Bees Smarter than Thought, Can Link Symbols to Numbers: New study

Wow. Bees are much more intelligent than previously believed.  We already knew from previous research that bees get the concept of zero and can do basic math. Now researchers have discovered bees may also be capable of connecting symbols to numbers.  This opens entirely new possibilities for human-animal communications.

Study overview

Researchers have trained honeybees to match a character to a specific quantity, revealing they are able to learn that a symbol represents a numerical amount…

In a Y-shaped maze, individual bees were trained to correctly match a character with a number of elements.

They were then tested on whether they could apply their new knowledge to match the character to various elements of the same quantity (in the same way that ‘2’ can represent two bananas, two trees or two hats).

A second group was trained in the opposite approach, matching a number of elements with a character.

While both could grasp their specific training, the different groups were unable to reverse the association and work out what to do when tested with the opposite (character-to-number or number-to-character).

“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.

-Dr. Scarlett Howard, formerly a PhD researcher in the Bio Inspired Digital Sensing-Lab (BIDS-Lab) at RMIT, now a fellow at the Research Center on Animal Cognition, University of Toulouse III — Paul Sabatier, CNRS


It has been widely held that humans, primates and birds are the only species to understand and use our developed systems like the Arabic numerals to represent numbers, but this new research demonstrates that the concept can be grasped by insects with brains far smaller than ours.*

“Studies have shown primates and birds can also learn to link symbols with numbers, but this is the first time we’ve seen this in insects…

But if bees have the capacity to learn something as complex as a human-made symbolic language, this opens up exciting new pathways for future communication across species.”

-Dr. Adrian Dyer, researcher and Associate Professor, RMIT University

* Previous studies have shown that a number of non-human animals have been able to learn that symbols can represent numbers, including pigeons, parrots, chimpanzees and monkeys.

Some of their feats have been impressive — chimpanzees were taught Arabic numbers and could order them correctly, while an African grey parrot called Alex was able to learn the names of numbers and could sum the quantities.

The new study for the first time shows that this complex cognitive capacity is not restricted to vertebrates. (source)


Journal Reference: Scarlett R. Howard, Aurore Avarguès-Weber, Jair E. Garcia, Andrew D. Greentree, Adrian G. Dyer. Symbolic representation of numerosity by honeybees (Apis mellifera): matching characters to small quantities. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2019; 286 (1904): 20190238

Study: DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.0238


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