Bees Are Able To Understand A Symbolic Language For Mathematics, According To An Experiment

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Do we need another reason to love bees? Not only can our little flower friends perform basic arithmetic, but scientists have also now discovered that they can recognize symbols associated with numbers.

Bees Are Able To Understand A Symbolic Language For Mathematics, According To An Experiment

wynand_uys/iNaturalist/CC-BY-NC


Do we need another reason to love bees? Not only can our little flower friends perform basic arithmetic, but scientists have also now discovered that they can recognize symbols associated with numbers.


Just as we humans recognize the symbol 7 or VII is associated with a quantity of seven, it appears that bees can make the same association.


In other words, they don't only understand quantities, addition, and subtraction - bees can also comprehend a symbolic language for those concepts. That's pretty incredible for a creature with a bee-sized brain!


"We take it for granted once we've learned our numbers as children, but being able to recognize what '4' represents actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive ability," said vision scientist Adrian Dyer of RMIT University in Australia.


"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."


Bees Are Able To Understand A Symbolic Language For Mathematics, According To An Experiment

Howard et al., Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2019


The researchers had already an inkling that was possible. They had found, through careful experimentation, that bees seem to understand symbols for addition and subtraction to perform elementary arithmetic.


We know, according to previous studies, that bees can communicate, using a complicated 'waggle dance' to convey information about where to forage.


However, this new research takes it a step further, demonstrating, for the first time, that - like humans, chimps and pigeons have been shown to do - invertebrates can understand and use a language for mathematics.


The researchers employed a modified system previously used to determine that pigeons could recognize numerical symbols. Invented symbols, or 'signs', were assigned numerosity and placed in a Y-shaped maze.


Bees were trained to fly in this maze, where first they'd view a stimulus - either a sign, or a picture showing two or three shapes - before nipping over to the decision chamber. There, they'd view two options.


If they were shown a sign initially, the two options would be a picture of two shapes and a picture of three shapes, and they would have to choose the correct number of shapes to match the sign. If they were shown several shapes initially, the two options would be two different signs and would have to match the sign to the number of items they viewed.


If they chose correctly, matching an N-shaped sign to two items and an upside-down T to three items, then the bee would be given a delicious sugar solution. However, an incorrect answer would yield harmless, but icky-tasting, quinine.


By the end of the fifty trials, the bees were eventually correctly matching signs to numerosity with an accuracy of around 75%. Then the researchers switched it up, testing the bees with new colors, patterns, and shapes, to determine whether the bees were matching numerosity to the symbol, not the picture as a whole.


The bees still matched the symbols based on the number of shapes in the picture.


But they couldn't learn the task in reverse. If their training stimulus had been a sign, they couldn't learn again from a numerosity stimulus, and vice versa.


"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," explained zoologist Scarlett Howard of the Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier.


"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."


Nor does the research demonstrate that bees can comprehend the quantity itself - just that they can match a quantity to a symbol, and that they're unable to learn that matching in reverse.


Not only does that help us understand learning, and how the brain builds connections between concepts, but it could lay the foundations of a previously unknown bridge in communications between humans and bees.


"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," said Dyer.


"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."


The research was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.


Reference: Science Alert

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Thinking Humanity: Bees Are Able To Understand A Symbolic Language For Mathematics, According To An Experiment
Bees Are Able To Understand A Symbolic Language For Mathematics, According To An Experiment
Do we need another reason to love bees? Not only can our little flower friends perform basic arithmetic, but scientists have also now discovered that they can recognize symbols associated with numbers.
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