Study reveals bees' brains are much more powerful than we thought

If a tiny bug's brain can do math, so can you.

CSA Images / mustafahacalaki / Getty Images

With their intricate honeycombs and careful selection of flowers to pollinate, it’s no surprise that honeybees are smart little guys — despite their tiny brains.

But bees have even more brainpower than we thought, researchers discovered in February 2019. As Inverse reported at the time, bees can do math — a finding which came as a surprise to the scientists who published their research in the journal Science Advances.

This is #13 on Inverse’s 20 most incredible stories about our planet from 2019.

“In the current study, the bees not only succeeded in performing these processing tasks but also had to perform the arithmetic operations in working memory,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers used a Y-shaped maze to test the bees, with each arm representing the answer to a math problem — one correct, one incorrect. Correct answers yielded a reward of sugar water, while incorrect ones prompted a bitter quinine solution.

As for the math problems, the bees didn’t use the numbers and symbols we humans understand to mean addition and subtraction. Instead, the researchers taught them to understand different colors as mathematical operations.

Blue represented addition and yellow stood for subtraction. In the experiment design, if the researchers showed the bees three blue shapes, the correct answer was one greater than the amount of blue shapes on the screen: four. Three yellow shapes, by contrast, meant the correct answer was one fewer than the amount presented on the screen: two.

The scientists observed 14 honeybees decide which maze path to take 100 times, and with each try, the bees became more accurate. In all, the trained bees chose correctly between 63.6 and 72.1 percent of the time. That’s significantly more correct answers than they would have produced at random.

Math is a complex cognitive process — it requires working memory, both long-term (learning the rules of the game) and short-term (picking the right answer).

Beyond just the mind-blowing fact that bees are capable of solving arithmetic problems, the research tells scientists more about the human brain. If bees can manage these problems, doing math might not be as difficult as we tend to assume.

As 2019 draws to a close, Inverse is revisiting the year’s 20 most incredible stories about our planet. Some are gross, some are fascinating, and others are truly incredible. This has been #13. Read the original article here.

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