back to article Yay, we got a B for maths. Literally, a bee: Little nosy nectar nerds smart enough to add, abstract numbers

The common honeybee is clever enough to do simple arithmetic, according to research published on Wednesday. Bio-boffins at RMIT University and Monash University in Australia, and the University of Toulouse, France, claim to have discovered this ability in bees over a series of experiments. Fourteen nectar slurpers were …

  1. Neil Barnes Silver badge
    FAIL

    You'd think people bright enough to train bees to do arithmetic

    Would know which way up to hold the phone when filming them.

    1. MiguelC Silver badge

      Re: You'd think people bright enough to train bees to do arithmetic

      Yes, unfortunately, what can be observed here is another sad case of vertical video syndrome

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: You'd think people bright enough to train bees to do arithmetic

      What? Horizontal videos are so 2017. All the cool kids shoot vertical nowadays!

      Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram - they've all got VV love. You phone is vertical, your videos are vertical - no-one, and I mean literally n-oone, watches video on a TV, monitor or some other "horizontal"| device anymore.

      Totes Obvs. Get wiv it, grandpa. LOL.

      1. Tomato42 Silver badge

        Re: You'd think people bright enough to train bees to do arithmetic

        you forgot "YOLO" and to "yeet" out of here, impostor

        1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

          Re: You'd think people bright enough to train bees to do arithmetic

          YOLO? You Obviously Love Owls?

          1. Graham Dawson

            Re: You'd think people bright enough to train bees to do arithmetic

            your ouches lack oofs.

          2. TheRealRoland
            Angel

            Re: You'd think people bright enough to train bees to do arithmetic

            Who?

  2. TechnicalBen Silver badge
    Coat

    Nice to see.

    Nice to see real science being done over dogmatic "but that's not possible/true/it's wrong!!!" type arguing and shouting.

    I've seen Spiders count the spokes on their web (though IIRC the counting lab tests were over prey numbers). So lots of us "laymen" have seen real life things happen, and I wonder at the crowd that like to shout "SCIENCE" as their excuse for bias and dreamed up ideas, over the real scientists getting the data!

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. Korev Silver badge
    Joke

    Grade

    I heard they weren't very good at subtraction, they only got a B-

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Grade

      Bee-have Korev...

    2. Compliant Andy
      Coat

      Re: Grade

      Did they use an aBEEcus? ...

      1. Korev Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Grade

        Very good, honey

        1. Korev Silver badge
          Coat

          Re: Grade

          Hopefully you're not making a beeline to HR to report harassment...

          1. lglethal Silver badge
            Trollface

            Re: Grade

            Bahh, HR are a hive of Drones...

    3. Velv Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Grade

      A B- is more than any Brexiteer has ever achieved.

      #ShamelessTroll

  5. Richard Parkin

    Were they allowed to take their calculators in?

    Were they allowed to take their calculators in?

  6. Kane Silver badge
    Alert

    Hex Lives!

    +++Mr. Jelly! Mr. Jelly!+++

    +++Error At Address: 14, Treacle Mine Road, Ankh-Morpork+++

    +++MELON MELON MELON+++

    +++Divide By Cucumber Error. Please Reinstall Universe And Reboot +++

    +++Whoops! Here Comes The Cheese! +++

    +++Oneoneoneoneoneoneone+++

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: Hex Lives!

      Who downvotes a Pterry ref?

      1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

        Re: Hex Lives!

        the same saddo who downvoted yours I suspect (and presumably mine)

        1. Kane Silver badge

          Re: Hex Lives!

          "the same saddo who downvoted yours I suspect (and presumably mine)"

          Probably Robert Rankin - he was always irked that he didn't have his own shelf in WH Smith.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hex Lives!

      I'm not sure I'd want to combine a Hiver with Hex...

      1. Patched Out

        Re: Hex Lives!

        Hex already has "Ants Inside". May not be compatible with bees.

        1. tweell
          Thumb Up

          Re: Hex Lives!

          Hex later added a beehive for memory storage, so is fully compatible!

        2. ibmalone Silver badge

          Re: Hex Lives!

          Wasn't it "Ant-hill inside"?

  7. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

    Geometry too

    They also construct regular hexagons, apparently without a ruler and compasses.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Geometry too

      I think the ruler is the bee itself. The workers are pretty well standard in size. Regular hexagons are optimal for packing units into an area so if bees are making bee-sized cells as close together as possible regular hexagons are what are produced.

      The really interesting geometry is projecting a scaled map of a the horizontal route to a food source onto the vertical surface of the comb.

      1. Killfalcon Silver badge

        Re: Geometry too

        "I think the ruler is the bee itself."

        Workers of the Hive, unite!

        ...oh. *ruler* ruler, for measuring things. of course. No call for Beevolutions today.

        1. Martin
          Coat

          Re: Geometry too

          I think they make those hexagons by instincive bee-hive-iour.

    2. Norman Nescio Silver badge

      Re: Geometry too

      They also construct regular hexagons, apparently without a ruler and compasses.

      Actually, its a bit more complicated than that:

      "It is now accepted that bees build cylindrical cells that later transform into hexagonal prisms through a process that it is still debated."

      (Nazzi, F. The hexagonal shape of the honeycomb cells depends on the construction behavior of bees. Sci. Rep. 6, 28341; doi: 10.1038/srep28341 (2016))

      I suspect there are a lot of El Reg commentators who could write improved automata to simulate the hive cell-building process. The fun starts in trying to devise experiments to determine which, if any, of the programs the bees are following.

    3. Spamfast Bronze badge
      Trollface

      Re: Geometry too

      They also construct regular hexagons, apparently without a ruler and compasses.

      If you place a uniform heat source underneath a layer of viscous fluid, it will often generate hexagonal "Rayleigh–Bénard convection cells". You also often get hexagonal prisms when lava cools or a colloid dries out. (Think Giant's Causeway.)

      I'm not saying bees aren't smart - the expermient described demonstrates that they are pretty clever - but regular geometric shapes do not necessarily require drawing tools or imply intelligent design.

      Neither does the evolution of eyeballs in case there are any fundies reading this! ;-)

  8. Wellyboot Silver badge

    >>>It shows the bees have some form of long-term memory to remember the mathematical rules, and some short-term memory to recall the numbers they're operating on.<<<

    I'd always taken Bee memory as a given, as they remember the direction and distance needed to return directly to a specific area from the hive (with siblings).

    The mathematical rules in play here maybe 'fewer than' & 'more than' associated with specific colours. They could just be adapting their normal behaviour to a 'new flower' that is only worth visiting at near the initial contact size, (plus or minus 1 based on colour) then picking the optimum, evolution is good at finding optimums.

    What happens if they have a blue-2 initially and then a choice of yellow 1 & 3?, there are a host of permutations that will need to trialled before maths can be called out as being the driver.

    On the up side if 'Maths done by a hive insect' can be proven then the mathematical capacity of the hive as a group will need some serious study.

    1. 2+2=5 Silver badge

      > I'd always taken Bee memory as a given, as they remember the direction and distance needed to return directly to a specific area from the hive (with siblings).

      There is a possibility that direction and distance is some sort of 'built-in' memory only usable for that purpose. This research shows that bees have a 'general purpose' memory that can be used for other tasks.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Good point 2+2, I hadn't considered dedicated memory for functions.

        A quick search popped up 1M as the bee neuron count (4x that of an ant) so there should be plenty of scope for complex learned behavior.

      2. JassMan Silver badge

        @ 2+2=5

        Yep they probably use X and Y registers for finding their honey and the Bee register for other long term on chip memory since the A register would be needed to determine which wall to go to.

  9. ForthIsNotDead
    Meh

    How do we know...

    ...that the bees have not simply become 'familiarised' with the image of the correct image (since that's the image they are trained with) and so naturally gravitate (or fly, in their case) towards that one when given a choice, because it is the image with which they are familiar? It certainly shows they have short term memory, but do they have the ability to add and subtract? I'm not (yet) convinced.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Holmes

      Re: How do we know...

      By reading the actual research?

      1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Re: How do we know...

        Well you certainly won't find the answers to those questions by reading the summaries in the popular press, so I suppose the original research is the only way to go.

        (I do sometimes read reports that, if true, imply embarrassing levels of idiocy or naivety in the scientists concerned. I always remind myself that they didn't write the newspaper article and I'm sure the original paper addresses the glaring weaknesses.)

        1. Paul Kinsler

          Re: they didn't write the newspaper article

          Indeed. The route might go something like this: paper, press release (by institution or journal publisher), mangled rewrite of press release by PA or similar news agency, remangled version by overworked journalist. If you are lucky the journalist might have had time to check back with one of the authors.

  10. Evil Auditor Silver badge

    BI

    since bees learn within 100 trials we now know there has to be efficient ways of solving the problem

    Exactly. I'd call it BI. Simply embed some bees in your problem solving machinery.

  11. Valerion

    As a software developer

    Not only do I have to worry about AI taking my job, but now I have to worry about bees taking it, too.

  12. Stratman

    Some summers ago

    a robin in my garden cheeped three times, a few seconds later it cheeped four times, then five, then six, all the way up to fifteen cheeps. T'was most entertaining listening to it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Trollface

      Re: Some summers ago

      And you never replied? Shame on you!

      1. David Roberts Silver badge

        Re: Some summers ago

        How..errr...cheep of you?

  13. Tikimon Silver badge
    Headmaster

    Aimless musing - Chicken or Egg?

    So, can other animals count? Of course they can, but the semantic answer is heavily dependent on what one means by "counting". As far as I know, other animals have not named the whole numbers in sequence like we have. However, they clearly can tell More or Less, and in a nameless way they can recognize and compare the quantity of items. To a point anyway, anything over five to a rabbit is Hrair. It's such a valuable survival skill that it's hardly surprising it's appeared in so many families of life.

    It only seems like a valid question because we humans approach it from the other end these days. We name all the numbers and put them in order and call that Counting. Other animals don't, so we question if they can assess and compare quantities. That's a deceptively biased view, since ordered number names aren't necessary to do this. We humans don't have any exclusive counting powers, we have only refined the innate ability to recognize quantity etc. that our ancestors - and many many other animals - already had.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Trollface

      Re: Aimless musing - Chicken or Egg?

      Those of us with a good maths degree can just about get as far as

      one ... t[wo]o ... many ...

    2. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

      Re: Aimless musing - Chicken or Egg?

      I accept that other animals can recognise 1, 2, 3, etc. when looking at specific sets of objects. What may be unique to homo sap is to associate the symbol 1, 2, etc with a number of objects. This is analogous to the way that words are abstract and their sound is not related to what they mean.

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: What may be unique to homo sap i

        On an infinite monkey cage recently it was said that (some) chimpanzees can understand the written digits, and related them to (eg) the matching number of dots. Also that for some tasks involving digit-based matching/memory, they can be faster than us.

  14. Daniel von Asmuth Bronze badge

    Apicial Mellificense

    Swarm Computing is the wave of the future., just beware of the bugs.

  15. ibmalone Silver badge
    Joke

    Asking a bee one plus one:

    "So is it two bee? Or not two bee?"

    1. Kyle Roberts

      That would be Shakespeare, perhaps the domain of the *spelling bee*?

  16. Draco
    Holmes

    Are the bees really doing arithmetic?

    I'm going to engage in a little armchair pedantry based on the video (which I saw) and the not the paper (which I didn't read).

    When it was doing addition, the prompt was a single blue spot and the possible answers were: 2 blue spots or 5 blue spots. Or (from what I infer the bee to be seeing): region with few blue spots and region with many blue spots.

    When it was doing subtraction, the prompt was 5 yellow triangles and the possible answers were: 4 yellow triangles or 2 yellow triangles. Again, a region with many triangles and a region with few triangles.

    The bee didn't have to do any arithmetic, it only had to match similar levels of complexity. In my mind, it seems closer to a comparator circuit than an ALU.

  17. Hollerithevo Silver badge

    why the quinine?

    I can see rewarding the bees with a drop of nectar, but i don't see ant reason for punishing wrong answers. It's all one with giving test animals shock. What proves human specialness more, now that have to grant animals, birds, and now insects, advanced mental powers than gratuitous cruelty?

  18. WereWoof
    Go

    Blackadder: Right Baldrick, let's try again, shall we? This is called adding. [gestures to the beans on the table] If I have two beans, and then I add two more, what do I have?

    Baldrick: Some beans.

    Blackadder: [smiles, impatiently] Yesss... and no. Let's try again, shall we? I have two beans, then I add two more beans. What does that make?

    Baldrick: A very small casserole.

    Blackadder: Baldrick. The ape-creatures of the Indus have mastered this. Now try again. [helps him count] One, two, three... four. So, how many are there?

    Baldrick: Three.

    Blackadder: What?

    Baldrick: And that one.

    Blackadder: Three... and that one. [waves the fourth bean in front of Baldrick's face] So if I add the three to that one, what will I have?!

    Baldrick: Oh! Some beans.

    Blackadder: [pause] Yes. To you, Baldrick, the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people, wasn't it?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But if they die from quinine would that be a

      Buzzkill ?

      (scuttles off to flame and bee proof bunker)

      Also what do bees like? Positive beeinforcement may bee better than negative.

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