5+2=?

The answer’s 7.

It’s easy enough, right?

It is, but at the same time, it isn’t. Adding, as well as subtracting, are actually complex number skills. You have to remember multiple things when figuring the answer to an addition or subtraction problem. First, you need to remember the rules. Next, you need to remember the numbers and what they mean. Finally, you need to remember what addition is, and how to do it. This series of events takes both short-term working memory and long term memory.

Looking at our example, you need to remember several things. What is “5”? Or “2”? What does “+” tell you to do? Can you figure out how to do it to “5” and “2”? And what do you get when you do that? That’s a lot to remember and do all at once.

For the longest time, scientists believed that very few animals besides humans might be capable of such complex numerical thinking.

But in recent decades, scientists have assembled an increasing list of animals who are capable of performing just such complex number skills. February 6th, Australian and French scientists publish a scholarly article which added the humble honeybee to the list. Already on the list: Humans as young as 1 ½ years old, chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys, vervet monkeys, orangutans, African grey parrots, and pigeons. Recently African jumping spiders, and golden silk spiders were added to the list. Now, honeybees take their rightful place on the same list.

Are you are wondering how exactly scientists checked to see if honeybees can add and subtract? I sure did! To understand, follow along.

Imagine you walk into a room. There’s a door on the other side of the room. Next to the door are four blue shapes on the wall. After you walk through the second door, you enter a second room. In this second room you see two more doors. One door has five blue shapes next to it, and the other one has three blue shapes next to it.

Which door do you go through next? If you picked the door with five shapes, you get a sweet, yummy treat. And if you picked the door with three shapes, you get something yucky and bitter to eat.

Now, do this 100 times, using either blue or yellow shapes. You will eventually figure out that blue means” add one” to the number of shapes on the first door if you want the yummy treat. Yellow means “subtract one.” Once you figure this out, you will have learned something new. Another way to say it is that you will have been trained.This type of training is called reward-punishment training.

This is exactly how scientists taught bees how to add or subtract one from a starting number that was between one and five. Each bee had 100 training runs, before they were tested. If bees didn’t learn how to add or subtract 1, scientists expected they would get the answer right 50% of the time when they did test runs. But when bees tested, they got the right answer 63% to 72% of the time. These numbers are very statistically significant, and show that the bees did indeed understand the ideas of “add one” and “subtract one.”

This study also shows that large complex brains, and language skills aren’t needed to understand and carry out complex numerical concepts.

Finally, this articles adds to a growing list, the number of surprising mathematical concepts that honey bees understand. Previous experiments have shown that honeybees can learn and use the concepts of “greater than” and less than,” and understand the concept of zero.

Who knew bees could do math. Did you?

The following link will let you read the full scholarly article, which was released on February 6th, 2019: Numerical cognition in honeybees enables addition and subtraction Science Advances 06 Feb 2019: Vol. 5, no. 2, eaav0961 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav0961

This following link is to the article that explored the honey bees understanding of greater than, less than, and zero. S. R. Howard, A. Avarguès-Weber, J. E. Garcia, A. D. Greentree, A. G. Dyer, Numerical ordering of zero in honeybees. Science 360, 1124–1126 (2018).