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Freshly Baked Science

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Bee Smart

12th September 2018

With a brain the size of a sesame seed, you wouldn’t expect much intelligence to come from a honey bee. However, this assumption couldn’t be more wrong as they compensate for the small size with density. From memorising the location of flowers to communicating this information to other colony members through a special dance, honey bees are much cleverer than you may imagine.


More recently it’s been found that not only can honey bees count, but they also understand the concept of zero, which only a few animals are able to do. Scientists found this out in a very clever way, and although we’d like to imagine a honey bee sat in front of an abacus, learning maths, it wasn’t found out this way.


Some Australian scientists, who were researching honey bees, set up a tunnel and had 5 markers down the length of it. They put a supply of nectar at one of the markers and let the honey bees into the tunnel. Of course, they flew straight to the nectar. It was then found that when they removed the nectar and allowed the honeybees back into the tunnel, they flew straight back to the marker where the nectar had previously been.


They repeated this experiment with the nectar placed at the first marker, then the second marker, and so on. It was found that the honey bees could remember where the nectar was, up to the fourth marker. When the experiment was done on the fifth marker, the ability to count was lost. This led the scientists to the conclusion that honey bees can count, but only to four.


The discovery that honey bees could understand the concept of zero was made during another experiment which involved training a group of honey bees. This was done using operant conditioning, which is a psychology term used to describe training a human or an animal that a certain action is good, by giving a reward and that another action is bad, by giving a punishment.


In this experiment, the bees were shown two pictures with a few black shapes on a white background. The bees were rewarded with sugar water for flying to the pictures with the least shapes on it, and punished with a horrible bitter liquid for flying to the picture with more shapes on it. Once they had been trained and were consistently flying to the picture with the least shapes, the scientists started to introduce a blank picture. The bees flew to the blank picture, rather than the pictures with the shapes, suggesting they understood that nothing was less than 1 or 2.


To check that the bees weren’t just flying to the blank picture because it looked different, a new set of bees were trained to fly to the picture with the most amount of shapes on it. When the blank picture was introduced, the bees flew to the other picture, with shapes on it. This confirmed the scientist’s conclusion from the first experiment!


So there you have it! Honey bees are highly intelligent insects, and although you won’t find them sitting maths exams any time soon, they do have a much better mind for numbers than we first thought. Share this article on twitter, facebook or Instagram to show your friends and family how cool honey bees are!

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