Well, I’ll Bee!

Primates, dolphins and parrots are all clever clogs.

But what about honeybees? Are they swots? How good at maths are they?

Pretty damn good.

We already know that honeybees (Apis mellifera) are intelligent but we are just starting to scratch the surface of their powers when it comes to assessing their maths abilities.

It seems that bees have better counting and shape recognition abilities than some KS1 pupils.

In a study published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B, bees were trained to find sugary rewards by identifying a placard that had the most shapes on show. Other bees learnt to find the treat on the placard with the fewest shapes.

Amazingly, researchers noticed that once the bees became familiar with this rule they were then able to quickly calculate the placard with the highest or lowest number of shapes.

The most interesting quote of the study relates to bees but could equally apply to children and that is,

The difficulty is that animals may not be solving the task the way we think they are.

How true. We might think we know what children are doing when solving a problem but unless we unearth their thinking then we can’t assume anything. They can be as surprising and unpredictable as honeybees.

There might be a buzz around the maths skills of bees and so there should be.

Other researchers have found numerical cognition in honeybees enables addition and subtraction. Howard et al (2019):

We show that honeybees, with a miniature brain, can learn to use blue and yellow as symbolic representations for addition or subtraction. In a free-flying environment, individual bees used this information to solve unfamiliar problems involving adding or subtracting one element from a group of elements.

The maths skills of invertebrates really are very impressive especially their understanding of the concept of ‘more or fewer’. Previously, the same team of researchers published a paper suggesting that bees could understand the concept of zero,

Bees have a brain the size of a sesame seed yet they have really smart minds with an astonishing capacity to learn and remember things.

Dr Charles Claudianos from the Queensland Brain Institute QBI’s Visual and Sensory Neuroscience Group said:

Bees are the Rolls Royce of the insect world due to their amazing brain.

Did you know?

  • Bees have lived on our planet for about 25 million years
  • Bee brains are oval, about 20 times bigger than the brain of a fruit fly
  • Most bees live for six weeks, but the queen can live for years
  • Worker bees are females and do all the work for the hive
  • Male bees are called drones and are merely “flying sperm”. They attract the queen to their bachelor hangouts where she mates and then returns to the hive to lay her eggs
  • Bees have their own language which uses a vocabulary of different dances
  • Bees usually die after stinging a mammal, but not after stinging other insects
  • Bees’ legs have knees, ankles and feet
  • Bees try and fly at a constant speed of about 7-8 kmh, even against headwinds
  • Bees can fly in light rain, but have problems in heavy rain
  • Bees must visit thousands of flowers to produce just a kilogram of honey

The EduTuber Maddie Moate is the host of Cbeebies ‘Do You Know?’ and BBC’s ‘Earth Unplugged’ and also a devoted Beekeeper. Take a look at her video below and find out more about why bees are good at maths.

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