Scientists train bees to perform calculations

Honeybees can do basic math. An international team, led by researchers from RMIT University in Australia, taught bees to associate certain colors with the concepts of addition and subtraction.

Scientists train bees to perform calculations

The findings are the latest demonstration of the mathematical ability of bees. The same team of researchers had previously found that honeybees were able to comprehend the mathematical concept of zero, placing them in an elite group of animals, including humans, dolphins, primates and some birds.

The researchers created an experiment in which 14 bees were encouraged to fly into a Y-shaped maze where one route provided a reward of sugar water at the end, while the other contained only a bitter tasting quinine solution. When the bees worked out that it was possible to find food inside the maze, they visited it repeatedly.

At the maze’s entrance, the researchers placed a sample visual stimulus consisting of between one and five shapes, which were either yellow (to represent subtraction) or blue (to represent addition).

After the bees saw the sample stimulus, they then flew into a “decision chamber” where two more visual stimuli much like the sample were placed at the entrances of the two possible routes. In order to choose the route with the food at the end of it, the bees had to select the “correct” answer.

“If the elements were blue, the bees would need to choose the stimulus option in the decision chamber, which was one element greater than the sample; however, if the elements were yellow, the bees would need to choose the stimulus which contained one less element than the sample number.”

“The color of the elements, and thus the arithmetic problem to be solved, was randomly assigned per bee for each trial,” in order to ensure that the bees didn’t always just choose one side of the maze.

Initially, the bees made random choices, but over the course of 100 trials they learned that blue meant +1, while yellow meant -1.

The researchers found that overall, they chose the correct option in the decision chamber 60 to 75 percent of the time.

“These days, we learn as children that a plus symbol means you need to add two or more quantities, while a minus symbol means you subtract,” Scarlett Howard, an author of the study from RMIT, said in a statement.

The researchers say that their findings could have implications for the development of artificial intelligence.


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