Bees are certified math whizzes, with scientists now discovering that these tiny insects are capable of associating symbols with the numbers they represent.
It's well-known that bees are quite adept at math with previous studies revealing that they understand the concept of zero and can even do basic arithmetic.
This new discovery highlights bees' mathematical competence even further as they're now the first insect known to understand numerical symbols, as illustrated in the study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Maximum Math Potential In A Bee-Sized Brain
So far, humans are the only species on Earth to develop entire symbolic systems to represent numbers. However, other species can learn these systems and understand what the numerical symbols mean, even species with brains that are a lot tinier than human brains.
Study author Andrew G. Dyer, who is an assistant professor at the RMIT University, explained that while learning numbers and their corresponding symbols are something humans often take for granted, this skill requires a very sophisticated level of cognitive ability.
"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 pointed out. "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."
A number of other animals have already been found to be capable of associating symbols with numbers, including chimpanzees, monkeys, parrots, and pigeons. However, bees are the first insect to be discovered with this learning ability.
For the experiments, bees were placed in a Y-shaped maze where they were trained to match a character with a number of elements. Afterward, they were tested whether they could match this character to different objects with the same quantity. For instance, whether they could match the symbol "3" to represent three bananas, three flowers, and so on.
Another group of bees was tested with the reverse association in which they were made to match a number of elements with the correct character.
Both groups were successful with grasping their corresponding concepts, neither were able to be successful when they switched places and tested with the reverse version of their training.
"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," said Dr. Scarlett Howard, who conducted the bee experiments.
The study findings not only shed new knowledge on the evolution of numerical abilities, but it also offers potential ways that humans can learn to communicate with animals. It also provides alternative approaches to computing systems, in which the way bees process mathematical information can inspire new paths for processing.