Can Honeybees Learn Math? Research Suggests They Can

New report from RMIT researchers suggests that honeybees can be taught to do basic addition and subtraction in their heads.

In a new report, researchers from RMIT University say they have taught honeybees how to perform the arithmetic operations addition and subtraction, a remarkable feat for creatures whose brains have fewer than 1 million neurons.

How Do You Teach a Honeybee?

The way we learn to perform arithmetic operations as children requires us to learn what the symbolic operators (+) and (-) represent. A (+) means adds two together to form a new number, while (-) means subtract one number from the other to get a new number.

Researchers used colored shaped to represent these same concepts in a way that a honeybee could see them and set up a Y-shaped box for the bees to navigate for sugar water. At the opening, there was a symbol indicating the operation to perform, either to add 1 or to subtract 1 from the number presented by the shape.

The bees would then choose either the left or right branch where two answers were represented. The correct answer contained high-sugar content liquid for the bees to gorge on and bring back to their hive. The incorrect answers contained a bitter liquid instead.

Over time, bees began to navigate more toward the correct answers, which researchers would switch between the branches to ensure the bees couldn’t learn where the sugar water was located. They also switched up the number to be added and subtracted, so that the bees couldn’t be using some other pattern to find the sugar water.

The only way they could do that is if they’d begun to understand what the shapes meant and correctly deduced the operation needed to access the sugar. Moreover, they began to actually perform the arithmetic.

According to the researchers, “During testing with a novel number, bees were correct in addition and subtraction of one element 64-72% of the time. The bee’s performance on tests was significantly different than what we would expect if bees were choosing randomly, called chance level performance (50% correct/incorrect).”

“Thus, our ‘bee school’ within the Y-maze allowed the bees to learn how to use arithmetic operators to add or subtract.”

Two Levels of Processing Needed for Math

Why this is important is that arithmetic—even simple addition and subtraction—requires two levels of processing in the brain, one requiring the bees to understand the numerical values while the second requires the bees to work with the numbers mentally in their working memory to find the correct answer.

Moreover, the bees had to work with the numerical value to be added or subtracted when it was not visually present, so they had to recall the number they had seen previously. This required the bees to “abstract” the value they needed to add or subtract, a key signifier of symbolic thinking that is the bedrock of higher level intelligence.