Skip to content

Mathemagical Bees

The text reads, "Can bees do math?". Bees are buzzing around the text. Mathematical symbols are scattered around the text as well.

Written by Melissa Croft
Illustrated by
Jerrie Feng

We currently know of very few animals capable of addition and subtraction, and honeybees were recently added to this list. Even though bees would not be able to complete your math homework, you probably want to know what all the buzz is about! In an interesting study, researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia created a Y-shaped maze for bees to travel through and used colours to represent addition and subtraction. If blue squares were presented to the bees at the start of the maze, they had to fly down the path that contained one additional square in order to receive a reward. If yellow squares were presented, they had to choose the path with one less square. For example, if the bees were to see two blue squares at the beginning of the maze, they would have to fly into the arm of the maze that contained 3 blue squares. If the bees answered correctly, they would receive sugar water as a reward. However, if they answered incorrectly, they would be presented with unpleasant quinine solution. This is probably quite different from any math class you been to! Fourteen bees completed the training exercises, where they completed 100 trips through the maze, taking between four to seven hours. During this time, it appeared that all the bees learned the concepts of addition and subtraction. Next, the bees were tested ten times, with two addition and two subtraction components, and were correct 64 – 72 % of the time – higher than would be due to chance.

It was once thought that only humans and some primate brains are capable of this level of processing. However, when further experiments were conducted, researchers were able to conclude that dolphins understand the concept of zero and some spiders can do arithmetic too. The discovery that a tiny brain is able to perform basic arithmetic could also affect the development of artificial intelligence, according to RMIT.

Have you ever been in a math class and thought to yourself “why would I need to know this?” Then you are probably wondering why bees would ever need to use math. The truth is that honeybees do not directly use arithmetic in their daily life, however, the skills used to perform math may provide them with an advantage. Having the ability to link a visual trait to a reward (as demonstrated in the above study) could help bees in many ways. For example, bees could remember the colour, shape, and size of the best flowers.