Quick notes:

  • Honeybees can learn to add or subtract small numbers based off of recognition.

  • Tiny brains can perform tasks we once thought unique to “higher” animals.

  • Human hubris is knocked down a peg or two by seeing tiny animals doing math.

Most parents laud their children once they learn to count. They stand by with dewy eyes as their kids work from one to 10 with their fingers to multiplication tables and math homework. It’s not long before they’re conscripted into helping them add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Most of these parents, however, don’t realize that bees can do the same thing.

While bees don’t develop the skills necessary to master calculus or win a Math-A-Thon, cognitive scientists have unearthed strong evidence that they — and other insects, too — have a surprising ability to mentally manipulate numbers. Animals with tiny brains, then, are far more mathematically inclined than previously imagined.

The smarts of the honeybee

Honeybees, known to biologists as Apis mellifera, have unexpected talents for performing such tasks. Among these unexpected talents are the ability to appropriately respond to the symbols of left and right, above and below, and even to understand the concept of zero — something the Romans didn’t do until the seventh century.

Ample experimentation has been performed to try and determine just how much these smaller creatures can do. The experiment that most recently helped to push this understanding was published in the journal Science Advances earlier this month.

What the researchers found was that not only can bees respond to right and left and understand the concept of zero, but they can also hold that number in mind to add or subtract. Bees aren’t as dumb as we thought.

Bee on honeycomb.
Filip Krstic via Getty Images

The experiment

In this most recent piece of research, led by Scarlett Howard at Paul Sabatier University in France, the team showed that when presented with a given color, bees could add or subtract from a quantity they were shown. In essence, bees are really just an insect version of preschoolers.

To get the bees to perform these operations, the researchers conditioned them to comprehend a suite of stimuli. In 100 trials, the researchers trained the bees to associate a color — blue or yellow — with one of two mathematical operations: If the symbol was blue, they would add; if it was yellow, they would subtract.

With this association in mind, the bees would then move down a chamber into one of two tunnels. If the color they were shown was blue, they would fly down whichever tunnel showed addition. If it was yellow, they would fly down the tunnel that showed subtraction.

Counting capacity

The capacity to manipulate numbers in this way has been found in more than just bees, however. The list of implicated animals extends from vervet monkeys and chimpanzees on the one hand to pigeons and spiders on the other. Ultimately, the ability is just another piece of evidence that humans aren’t all that special after all.

The ubiquity in the animal kingdom here makes sense. Any species that lives in an environment with countable objects would probably survive better if it could reason about those countable objects.

For honeybees in particular, scientists think the ability might have developed from the flowers the bees plunder to survive. Being able to count a flower’s petals, for instance, might yield some clue as to which flower has a more lucrative yield of pollen. With this information, the bees could more effectively navigate their flowery landscape.

A bee’s intelligence

Amazingly, the bees thrived with the task in the Y-shaped maze. When presented with a color that told them to add (blue), they would follow the tunnel that showed the result of addition. When presented with a color that signaled subtraction (yellow), they would fly down the tunnel that showed the results of subtraction.

What the ability of these mentalizing bees shows us is that insects have some capacity, despite their tiny brains, to hold items in short-term memory, manipulate them, and use that information to make a logical decision. It might not be long, in other words, before they calibrate their munitions and take over. We should all be afraid.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

This article tells you a bit more about some other smart animals.

This article discusses the benefits of consuming insect protein.

 This article celebrates the emergence of the first human crossword puzzle.