A team of scientists from RMIT University, Monash University and the University of Toulouse III has trained honeybees (Apis mellifera) to match a character to a specific quantity, revealing the insects are able to learn that a symbol represents a numerical amount.
Studies have shown that a number of non-human animals have been able to learn that symbols can represent numbers, including pigeons, parrots, chimpanzees and monkeys.
Some of their feats have been impressive — chimpanzees were taught Arabic numbers and could order them correctly, while an African grey parrot called Alex was able to learn the names of numbers and could sum the quantities.
The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows that this complex cognitive capacity is not restricted to vertebrates.
In the experiments, individual bees were trained to correctly match a character with a number of elements.
They were then tested on whether they could apply their new knowledge to match the character to various elements of the same quantity (in the same way that ‘2’ can represent two bananas, two trees or two hats).
A second group was trained in the opposite approach, matching a number of elements with a character.
While both could grasp their specific training, the different groups were unable to reverse the association and work out what to do when tested with the opposite (character-to-number or number-to-character).
“This suggests that number processing and understanding of symbols happens in different regions in bee brains, similar to the way separate processing happens in the human brain,” said lead author Dr. Scarlett Howard, a scientist with the Research Center on Animal Cognition at the University of Toulouse III.
“Our results show honeybees are not at the same level as the animals that have been able to learn symbols as numbers and perform complex tasks.”
“But the results have implications for what we know about learning, reversing tasks, and how the brain creates connections and associations between concepts.”
“Discovering how such complex numerical skills can be grasped by miniature brains will help us understand how mathematical and cultural thinking evolved in humans, and possibly, other animals.”
“Studying insect brains offers intriguing possibilities for the future design of highly efficient computing systems,” said senior author Dr. Adrian Dyer, from the Bio-inspired Digital Sensing Lab at RMIT University and the Department of Physiology at Monash University.
“When we’re looking for solutions to complex problems, we often find that nature has already done the job far more elegantly and efficiently.”
“Understanding how tiny bee brains manage information opens paths to bio-inspired solutions that use a fraction of the power of conventional processing systems.”
Scarlett R. Howard et al. 2019. Symbolic representation of numerosity by honeybees (Apis mellifera): matching characters to small quantities. Proc. R. Soc. B 286 (1904); doi: 10.1098/rspb.2019.0238