Honeybees Can Do Complex Additions and Subtractions

Honeybees are great math students.

(Getty Images)
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Not only do honeybees pollinate one-third of the crops grown that we eat every day, they also communicate to one another through dance and can do basic math.

Researchers have recently learned that bees can add and subtract. The discovery, along with an earlier discovery that bees understand the concept of zero, tells scientists that having a tiny brain doesn’t always equal limited mathematical abilities.

“Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected,” Professor Adrian Dyer, the author’s senior author from RMIT University in Melbourne, said in a statement.

“You need to be able to hold the rules around adding and subtracting in your long-term memory, while mentally manipulating a set of given numbers in your short-term memory,” Dyer explained. “On top of this, our bees also used their short-term memories to solve arithmetic problems, as they learned to recognize plus or minus as abstract concepts rather than being given visual aids.”

Fourteen different flying honeybees were put into a Y-shaped maze with blue and yellow shapes at the entrance to the maze. Blue represented addition and yellow was subtraction. One arm of the Y maze contained a reward of sugar water that would be moved as bees learned what +1 and -1 meant.

“While the specific task of addition/subtraction may not be directly apparent in the honeybee’s natural environment, the skills and cognitive plasticity required for performing the arithmetic task are likely to be ecologically advantageous,” the report says.

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