New Study Shows Honeybees Can Link Symbols to Numbers

We already know bees can understand zero and do basic math, now they may also be able to link symbols to numbers.
Fabienne Lang

Incredibly, researchers have been able to train honeybees, with their wee insect brains, to match a character to a specific quantity. This demonstrates the bees' ability to comprehend how a symbol represents a numerical amount

This new finding displays a new light on how numerical abilities may have developed over millenia, as well as offering the possibility of communicating between humans and other species.


The Australian-French team of researchers who discovered the bees' abilities is the same group that found out bees can do simple arithmetic and understand the concept of the number zero.

Humans alone have a system for numbers, but smaller-brained creatures may pick it up

While we as humans are the only species known to have developed a numerical system, like the Arabic numerals we all use, Associate Professor Adrian Dyer and his team have shown that smaller-brained species may grasp them too.

"We take it for granted once we've learned our numbers as children, but being able to recognise what '4' represents actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive ability," Dyer said.

"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," he continues.

"Humans have over 86 billion neurons in our brains, bees have less than a million, and we're separated by over 600 million years of evolution."

Dyer states: "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."

So what did the bees learn?

This new study demonstrates for the first time how non-vertebrates may grasp a similar cognitive capacity as us: Linking numbers with symbols. 

Conducted by Dr Scarlett Howard, a fellow at the Research Center on Animal Cognition, the bee experiment involved a Y-shaped maze, where individual bees were trained to correctly match a character with a number of elements.

The first group of bees were tested on whether or not they could apply this knowledge and match elements of the same quantity (for example, how the number 2 can represent two watches or two spoons.)

A second group was trained to match a number of elements with a character, essentially the opposite of the first group.

Each group understood their specific training; however, could not comprehend the opposite group's work when they were tested on it.

And what did the humans learn, in turn?

"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," Howard said.

"Our results show honeybees are not at the same level as the animals that have been able to learn symbols as numbers and perform complex tasks."

Dyer followed on to explain that, "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."