Hello, hive spirit: bees can do basic arithmetic, a new study finds


The oval brain of a bee is the size of a sesame seed. It contains less than a million neurons, while the human brain contains 100 billion neurons.

A team of entomologists wonders what all these extra nerve cells are for after discovering that bees can do the kind of essential computation that we once thought to distinguish humans from primate animals to which they most closely resemble .

Many animals exhibit a certain degree of quantitative understanding by digging and fighting, amassing and hiding and finding their way home. Counting, for example, is omnipresent.

But bees can do something more, according to an article published earlier this month in the journal Science Advances, peer reviewed. They can perform additions and subtractions, placing one of the world's leading pollinators in the venerable company of monkeys, parrots and, of course, spiders – the alphabetical list of the animal kingdom.

The results contribute to a growing body of evidence that the brain of insects is more powerful than previously thought – capable not only of a vague digital sense, but also of the type of learning and complex memory tasks that make arithmetic possible. It also highlights the evolution of quantitative capabilities in other species, dissociating digital understanding from human language.

"A small biological treatment system can perform quite complex tasks," said Scarlett Howard, lead author of the journal and postdoctoral fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

The small network of neurons used by the bees, she said in an interview with the Washington Post, suggests a possible alternative to high-energy computing, suggesting that artificial intelligence should seek to model natural systems. who have evolved in complex and difficult environments. "

The research builds on the discovery of the same researchers last year that bees do not understand anything. That's the concept of nothing. The authors reported that bees trained to perceive the notions of "superior to" and "inferior to" were also able to command zero at the beginning of a digital continuum – an ability that placed them on the same plane as the gray parrot, its ability to copy human speech, as well as non-human primates and even preschool children.

In the new study conducted last year at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in southeastern Australia, researchers designed a Y-shaped labyrinth to form 14 bees to add and subtract.

The first sight that insects saw was a sample of one, two, four or five shapes – never three. The shapes, rendered in blue or yellow, were squares, diamonds, circles or triangles.

They then went to a "decision room" where they found themselves face to face with two new sets of forms.

If the shapes were blue, the correct choice in the decision chamber was the option with an element greater than the original sample. If the shapes were yellow, however, the right choice for the bee would be to fly in the direction of the option with one item less than the sample.

They were rewarded with a sweet solution for correct answers and punished by a bitter-tasting substance for the misfires.

In the beginning, insects made random decisions. But out of 100 trials each, the bees understood when they were supposed to choose the +1 or -1 option.

The task required two cognitive exploits at once: a long-term memory of the color rule and a shorter-term analysis of an unknown number of forms.

Although each bee seemed to learn differently, the population showed signs of control somewhere between the 40th and 70th tests, Howard said. Over time, they began to slow down when they received the initial sample, before rushing into the decision chamber.

Then the bees were put to the test, confronted with a shape that they had never seen before, as well as at an unprecedented number of samples, three. Each bee performed four tests, each consisting of 10 journeys through the labyrinth. In each test, conducted without punishment or reward, the bees scored significantly better than chance.

They seemed not to master one command better than the other, although other species showed signs of addition, Howard said. She added that the results were conclusive enough to make them feel confident with their beehive of 14 bees. From eight to twelve is considered statistically valid, she said.

The new proof of computational skills of honey bees comes from the fact that their numbers diminish under the growing threats of pests and pathogens. In the United States, beekeepers lost 40% of their managed colonies between spring 2017 and spring 2018, in tandem with the more general decline in invertebrate populations, which scientists have linked to climate change.

Discovery has applications that go far beyond the activities of bees.

"The brain of honey bees contains less than a million neurons. It is therefore very important to prove that a bee can learn to use a mathematical operator, because it allows us to understand how a brain as big as ours may have plausibly developed the capacity of the incredible mathematical results that underlie tend our modern society, "said Adrian Dyer, one of the study's authors and an expert in imaging and information processing at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

The discovery casts doubt on the idea that digital understanding is innate to humans, who are separated from bees by more than 400 million years of evolution, as the paper notes. The result suggests that bees, nonhuman animals, and preverbals could be "biologically adapted to complex digital tasks," an ability refined by the struggle for survival in "complex environments that forced them to use numbers. and to quantify, "said Howard.

"We are not the only ones who are sophisticated," she said.

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