Bees Complete Counting Tasks Using Just Four Nerve Cells

A new study has shown that clever use of brain cells is more important than size.

Bees use only a small amount of brain nerves to complete complex counting tasks. New research from the Queen Mary University of London has demonstrated how bees count with as little as four brain nerves. 

The researchers created a simulation of a brain with just four nerve cells on a computer that could count small quantities by examining each object closely.

This is the same method bees use to count. Humans on the other hand look at all the items at once, then count them together. 

Bees Complete Counting Tasks Using Just Four Nerve Cells
Source: Lars Chittka/Queen Mary University of London

Bees use limited brain power efficiently

The research shows that this type of counting allows the bees to complete counting tasks without needing much brain power.

Previous studies into the counting ability of bees showed that they could count up to four or five items and have the ability to choose the smaller or larger number from a group. 

The bees method means they don’t have to understand complex mathematical concepts, but instead they use specific flight movements to inspect items closely, this simplifies their task so that only need to use minimal brain power.

The research proves that the intelligence of animals can be high despite only using only small numbers of nerve cells to complete tasks. As long as this small of cells are wired together in the right way. 

Research could be applied to AI

The study doesn’t just help us understand bees more, the research could also have applications into Artificial Intelligence.

Autonomous robots will need to be able to complete complex tasks using computationally inexpensive algorithms, the trick to this may lie in insect-inspired scanning behaviors.

Lead author Dr. Vera Vasas, from the Queen Mary University of London, commented on the research says:

"Our model shows that even though counting is generally thought to require high intelligence and large brains, it can be easily done with the smallest of nerve cell circuits connected in the right manner. We suggest that using specific flight movements to scan targets, rather than numerical concepts, explains the bees' ability to count."

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Brain size doesn't always matter

"This scanning streamlines the visual input and means a task like counting requires little brainpower. Careful examination of the actual inspection strategies used by animals might reveal that they often employ active scanning behaviors as shortcuts to simplify complex visual pattern discrimination tasks. Hopefully, our work will inspire others to look more closely not just at what cognitive tasks animals can solve, but also at how they are solving them." 

It is essential for bees to use their brains highly efficiently, they only have one million nerve cells in total. This small amount of brain power means they need to use this limited computational power efficiently. 

In comparison, humans have 86 billion nerve cells at their disposal to send and receive commands.

Professor Lars Chittka, also from Queen Mary University of London and leader of the team in which the study was performed, added:

"These findings add to the growing body of work showing that seemingly intelligent behavior does not require large brains, but can be underpinned with small neural circuits that can easily be accommodated into the microcomputer that is the insect brain".

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