Scientists claim that bees can solve basic maths problems

Another study also explores the science behind hexagon beehives


Published: February 07, 2019 13:24:59 | Updated: February 10, 2019 13:05:59


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A study released on Thursday has shown that bees, despite their tiny brains, are able to solve basic addition and subtraction problems - a stunning feat considering the level of cognition required for arithmetic.

The research, led by scientists from RMIT University in Australia, involved training individual honeybees to enter a maze where they would encounter between one and five shapes, coloured either blue or yellow.

If the shapes were blue, the bee had to add one number, and if they were yellow the bee had to subtract one to find the solution.

The bees would make their selection by entering a tunnel with either the correct or incorrect answer, where they would be rewarded if they got it right.

Initially the bees made random choices, however after roughly 100 learning trials lasting four to seven hours, they cracked the code that blue meant plus one and yellow meant minus one and could then apply the rule to new numbers.

"Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected," RMIT Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said.

Previous studies have shown that primates, birds, babies and even spiders can add and subtract and now bees can join that highly achieving group, according to a report by Xinhua.

Solving maths problems requires two levels of sophisticated cognition, the first being to hold the rules around adding and subtracting in long-term memory, and secondly to mentally manipulate a specific set of numbers using short term memory.

The recognition that bees can do this with their very small and relatively simple brains could have far reaching implications.

"If maths doesn't require a massive brain, there might also be new ways for us to incorporate interactions of both long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning of new problems," Dyer said.

In another study, the science behind why bees use hexagons to make beehives has been revealed.

As we all know, honeycombs store honey which is very valuable to the bees as it sustains the hive and feed their young but also makes the wax that actually holds the honeycomb together.

To produce it, bees have to go through a long process and therefore it’s obvious that they need to build a secure storage with as little effort as possible. This means that all the cells should be exactly the same so they fit tight with every other cell.

A honeycomb built from spheres, pentagons, octagons etc, wouldn’t be ideal because it will create gaps that will need extra wax for patching. Of course, the same perfect structure can be made possible not just from hexagons, but also from two other geometrical figures with equal sides: Squares and equilateral triangles.

So why do bees also use hexagons? Here is where it gets very fascinating.

The idea was first proposed in 36 B.C by Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro but it was proven mathematically 2,000 years later by Thomas Hales, a mathematician at the University of Michigan. As it turns out, a hexagonal honeycomb has the smallest total perimeter and therefore it needs less wax to be built and is a more compact structure.

If you think about it, compactness matters and it makes absolute sense. To produce a single ounce (28 grams) of wax, a bee must consume eight ounces (226 grams) of honey. Hexagons are the perfect design in economising labour and wax and that’s why bees always use hexagons to make their beehives.

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