According to a study published this week in Progress of science, scientists at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have shown that honey bees can add and subtract if they are trained to do so. This discovery helps scientists understand the relationship between brain size and brain power, perhaps removing the brain of a bird from the list of perceived affronts. With honeybees and humans being separated by more than 400 million years of evolution, the study's authors claim that their findings suggest that an advanced understanding of numbers "could be more accessible to non-human animals than previously thought. "

Many animals include the numbers at a basic level for essential tasks. But until now, only a few animals have demonstrated the ability to add and subtract. Honey bees join this shortlist of chimpanzees, African gray parrots and spiders.

The revelation that the tiny brain of a bee can understand basic mathematical operations has consequences for the future development of artificial intelligence, according to RMIT.

"This could enlighten us on how to build simpler computers that can still process at a higher level … perhaps by improving the energy efficiency of computers," said Scarlett R. Howard, the company's chief executive. lead author of the study.

How to train your bee

Training bees to do homework will not be an option, but here's how scientists helped them learn.

In this study, 14 free flying fly bees learned to recognize colors as "symbolic representations for addition and subtraction", where blue corresponds to addition and yellow to subtraction.

Diagram of a device used to train and test bees in free flight.

The bees entered a Y-shaped labyrinth. At the entrance to the maze, they viewed a set of samples containing a specific number of blue or yellow shapes. Then, they flew over an opening and chose between two possible options: If the elements they saw first were blue, the bees should go to the decision room that had one more than the sample that they had seen first (more!). If the shapes were yellow, the bees should choose the option that contained a form of less than the sample (subtraction!).

In 100 trials, bees were rewarded with a drop of sweet water for the right choice and punished for the wrong choice by a drop of quinine solution.

After the training, the moment of truth came in the test phase: during tests without reward or punishment, the bees found the correct answers in 63% to 72% of cases. This is not a coincidence.

In this study, bees were tested over the range of numbers from 1 to 5 for their ability to add and subtract. Howard notes that it would be useful to examine the performance of bees on larger numbers, such as 2 plus 3, or go on to test more complex operations.

Why would a bee need to know math?

Adding and subtracting may not be useful in the daily life of a honey bee, but the cognitive skills required to perform mathematics are probably advantageous. The authors of the study said that associating visual traits with a reward, such as math tests passed by bees, would probably help them in their adventures in search of food. For example, it would help to remember which flower traits (such as color, shape or size) can provide essential resources and which ones can not.

Previous studies have shown that bumblebees are capable of complex tasks. A 2016 study found that bees can learn and impart skills to other bees. Is a bee math class in bee is in order?

Howard told CNN that she hoped that with the results of this study, people would understand that "insects are not unintelligent, they are intelligent and can do things that are cognitively demanding."