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A bee can process numbers in the same way that a human does

Previous studies have shown other animals have similar cognitive functions to humans.

Image: Shutterstock/Jack Hong

RESEARCHERS HAVE DISCOVERED that bees have the ability to process numbers in the same way humans do. 

It’s the first insect to have been found with a similar cognitive ability to humans when it comes to numbers. 

The team behind the discovery trained honeybees to match a character to a specific quantity in the same way humans use the symbols such as ’1′, ’10′, or ’100′ to denote quantities. 

In a Y-shaped maze, 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.

It is thought the outcome of the research points towards the potential for new approaches to bio-inspired computing. 

The findings from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) were published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 

Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said while humans were the only species to have developed systems to represent numbers, the research shows the concept can be grasped by brains far smaller than ours.

“We take it for granted once we’ve learned our numbers as children, but being able to recognise what ’4′ represents actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive ability,” Dyer said.

“Studies have shown primates and birds can also learn to link symbols with numbers but this is the first time we’ve seen this in insects.

“Humans have over 86 billion neurons in our brains, bees have less than a million, and we’re separated by over 600 million years of evolution.

“But if bees have the capacity to learn something as complex as a human-made symbolic language, this opens up exciting new pathways for future communication across species.”

Previous studies had shown other animals were able to learn that symbols can represent numbers, including pigeons, parrots and chimpanzees. 

“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,” Dyer said. 

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