Bees Can Recognize Numerical Symbols Like Humans

Earlier this year, a study showed that honeybees can do basic math and solve problems. Now a new study gives more insight into the intelligence of these hardworking honey-making insects. It suggests bees can recognize numerical symbols the way humans do.

These insects’ tiny brains can think deeply enough to connect symbols to numbers, a new study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown. Researchers ran several experiments and trainings to discover that bees can recognize numerical symbols. The study sheds light on how the perception of numerical abilities has evolved over the last millennia, opening new possibilities for communication between humans and animals.

This study is an accomplishment of the same team from Australia and France which showed that honeybees can understand the basics of math and perform simple arithmetic operations. Moreover, this study moves humanity one step closer to bio-inspired computing, which can replicate how our brains work.

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“We take it for granted once we’ve learned our numbers as children, but being able to recognise what ‘4’ represents actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive ability,” Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said in a statement. “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. 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.”

A couple of studies have showed that other animals can learn symbols which represent numbers, including pigeons, parrots, chimpanzees and monkeys. However, this is the first time a study has shown that this cognitive capacity can be found in non-vertebrates.

Researchers showed that bees can recognize numerical symbols in a Y-shaped maze by training bees individually to match a character with a certain number of elements. The tests aimed for bees to apply their knowledge to match characters to different elements of the same quantity. A second group of bees matched a number of elements with a character instead.

Even though both groups succeeded at perceiving and comprehending their tasks with specific training, they weren’t successful in swapping their roles and doing the tasks the other group did (character-to-number or number-to-character.)

“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,” Dr. Scarlett Howard, of the Research Center on Animal Cognition at the University of Toulouse III said. “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.”