Researchers have been conducting some interesting experiments with bees. I’m not sure whether these experiments show that bees are really smart, or that some scientists have a lot of time on their hands. Maybe both.
Bees Can Learn Basic Arithmetic
At RMIT University in Australia, bees were released into a maze. In the front section of the maze, they saw a group of colored blocks – for example 2 blue blocks or 2 yellow blocks. In the back section of the maze were two adjoining rooms. One room had more blocks than the first room, and the other room had fewer blocks than the first room. If the blocks were blue, the bees learned that this meant “add one” and they went to the second room with 3 blocks to receive a sugar water reward. If the blocks were yellow, this meant “subtract” one, and the bees went to the second room with 1 block to receive a sugar water reward. If they made the wrong choice, the bees got a bitter water solution, which they did not like. The researchers found that after repeated trials, bees made the correct choice around 68% of the time, which is better than random chance. Dr. Adrian Dryer, a co-author of the study, said: “It is not that every bee could do this [spontaneously], but we could teach them to do it,” said Dyer. Dyer added that math skills found across the animal kingdom were “suspicious”, leading him to believe it might be a widespread phenomenon in animals that aids survival.
Bees Can Learn the Concept of Zero
After teaching bees to add and subtract, Dr. Adrian Dyer came up with another question: Can bees learn the concept of zero? He observed that "Zero is a difficult concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily -- it takes children a few years to learn. We've long believed only humans had the intelligence to get the concept, but recent research has shown monkeys and birds have the brains for it as well. What we haven't known -- until now -- is whether insects can also understand zero."
To test the bees, Dr. Dyer set up a board with cards having a different number of symbols – 3 circles, 2 circles, 1 circle, etc. When the bees chose the card with the lowest number of symbols, they received a sugar water reward. Then he added a blank card to the board, and the sugar water was placed at that location. The bees were able to learn that the card with no images was less than the other cards and went on to collect their reward.
Dr. Dyer concludes: "If bees can learn such a seemingly advanced math skills that we don't even find in some ancient human cultures, perhaps this opens the door to considering the mechanism that allows animals and ourselves to understand the concept of nothing."