Bees Can Link Symbols To Numbers: Study

EurekAlert (RMIT University)

Research Shows Bee Brains May Be Capable Of Connecting Symbols To Numbers. Credit: RMIT University

Research Shows Bee Brains May Be Capable Of Connecting Symbols To Numbers. Credit: RMIT University

We've learned bees can understand zero and do basic math, and now a new study shows their tiny insect brains may be capable of connecting symbols to numbers.

Researchers have trained honeybees to match a character to a specific quantity, revealing they are able to learn that a symbol represents a numerical amount.

It's a finding that sheds new light on how numerical abilities may have evolved over millennia and even opens new possibilities for communication between humans and other species.

The discovery, from the same Australian-French team that found bees get the concept of zero and can do simple arithmetic, also points to new approaches for bio-inspired computing that can replicate the brain's highly efficient approach to processing.

The RMIT University-led study is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said while humans were the only species to have developed systems to represent numbers, like the Arabic numerals we use each day, the research shows the concept can be grasped by brains far smaller than ours.

"We take it for granted once we've learned our numbers as children, but being able to recognise what '4' represents actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive ability," Dyer said.

"Studies have shown primates and birds can also learn to link symbols with numbers, but this is the first time we've seen this in insects.

"Humans have over 86 billion neurons in our brains, bees have less than a million, and we're separated by over 600 million years of evolution.

"But if bees have the capacity to learn something as complex as a human-made symbolic language, this opens up exciting new pathways for future communication across species."

Mini brains, maximum potential: what the bees learned

Studies have shown that a number of non-human animals have been able to learn that symbols can represent numbers, including pigeons, parrots, chimpanzees and monkeys.

Some of their feats have been impressive - chimpanzees were taught Arabic numbers and could order them correctly, while an African grey parrot called Alex was able to learn the names of numbers and could sum the quantities.

The new study for the first time shows that this complex cognitive capacity is not restricted to vertebrates.

The bee experiment was conducted by Dr Scarlett Howard, formerly a PhD researcher in the Bio Inspired Digital Sensing-Lab (BIDS-Lab) at RMIT and now a fellow at the Research Center on Animal Cognition, University of Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier, CNRS.

In a Y-shaped maze, individual bees were trained to correctly match a character with a number of elements.

They were then tested on whether they could apply their new knowledge to match the character to various elements of the same quantity (in the same way that '2' can represent two bananas, two trees or two hats).

A second group was trained in the opposite approach, matching a number of elements with a character.

While both could grasp their specific training, the different groups were unable to reverse the association and work out what to do when tested with the opposite (character-to-number or number-to-character).

"This suggests that number processing and understanding of symbols happens in different regions in bee brains, similar to the way separate processing happens in the human brain," Howard said.

"Our results show honeybees are not at the same level as the animals that have been able to learn symbols as numbers and perform complex tasks.

"But the results have implications for what we know about learning, reversing tasks, and how the brain creates connections and associations between concepts.

"Discovering how such complex numerical skills can be grasped by miniature brains will help us understand how mathematical and cultural thinking evolved in humans, and possibly, other animals."

Studying insect brains offers intriguing possibilities for the future design of highly efficient computing systems, Dyer said.

"When we're looking for solutions to complex problems, we often find that nature has already done the job far more elegantly and efficiently," he said.

"Understanding how tiny bee brains manage information opens paths to bio-inspired solutions that use a fraction of the power of conventional processing systems."

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The paper, "Symbolic representation of numerosity by honeybees (Apis mellifera): Matching characters to small quantities" with co-authors Aurore Avarguès-Weber (University of Toulouse), Jair Garcia (School of Media and Communication, RMIT) and Professor Andrew Greentree (ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics, RMIT), is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.0238).

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-06/ru-bcl060319.php?fbclid=IwAR1EHQcE8QNwC2kem0a8lfHquB5nP8s8aIz4cf4eknVl_E4tawLbX74HbMc

Do Bees Know Nothing?

The New York Times     By James Gorman     June 7, 2018

Researchers say bees understand the concept of nothing, or zero. But do we understand what that means?

Not only can a honey bee count, it understands the concept of zero, according to researchers. CreditFrank Bienewald/LightRocket, via Getty ImagesWhat would it mean if bees could understand the concept of nothing?

That would be really something.

Yet that is what scientists reported Thursday in the journal Science. Bees had already demonstrated they could count. Now, the researchers wrote, bees have shown that they understand the absence of things — shapes on a display in this experiment — as a numerical quantity: none or zero.

This is a big leap. Some past civilizations had trouble with the idea of zero. And the only nonhuman animals so far to pass the kind of test bees did are primates and one bird. Not one species, one bird, the famed African gray parrot, Alex, who knew not only words, but numbers.

Bees? Really? It’s not the results of the study I wonder about. There seems to be no question that bees do quite well at the standard understanding-zero experiment, clearly putting them in a cognitive elite.

And in one sense that’s no surprise, researchers continue to find that insect brains are far more complex and capable of learning, calculating and deciding than we had ever imagined, and bees seem particularly smart.

It’s not the science, but the language that gave me pause. How do we understand the word “understand”? What is our concept of what “concept” means?

When I first read that bees could understand the concept of nothing, I thought, well, they’re one up on cosmologists, many of whom say the universe came from nothing although they can’t agree with philosophers on what “nothing” is.

Obviously, this was not the problem the bees were asked to solve, yet.

Here’s what they did. Scarlett Howard and Adrian Dyer of RMIT University in Melbourne and their colleagues trained bees to land on visual displays for a reward.

Some were rewarded if they landed on the displays with more shapes, like squares or circles, and some if they landed on the displays with fewer. The shapes were of different sizes and the displays with varying numbers of shapes were hung on a wheel in different places to avoid giving any spatial clues.

Then, the researchers introduced a display with no shapes. Bees trained to land on a display with fewer shapes landed on the so-called “empty set,” the nothing display, the zero card.

Bees trained to land on the display with more shapes did not.

Bees were rewarded when they landed on cards with more shapes. CreditScarlett R. Howard et al.

Bees were rewarded when they landed on cards with more shapes.CreditScarlett R. Howard et al.

Furthermore, bees did better when the empty display was in a group with displays with larger numbers of shapes than with fewer. And that suggested the bees get the idea of more and fewer, of a numerical series in which one is closer to zero than five.

There, I did it myself. I wrote “they get the idea.” Does that mean bees have “ideas”? I have no idea. I do know that scare quotes are the unavoidable curse of comparative cognition.

Altogether, the results of the bee experiments show, Dr. Dyer said, that bees “understood that zero was a number lower than one and part of a sequence of numbers.”

But they weren’t thinking the way we think, consciously, right? “I certainly wouldn’t use the word consciousness,” in relation to bees, Dr. Dyer said. But, “the evidence is consistent with high-level cognitive abilities.”

I asked two other researchers what they thought about what was going on in the bee brains.

Lars Chittka, at Queen Mary University of London, who has explored the capacity of bees to learn and manipulate tools, said the bees showed comparable ability to primates on the tasks the researchers set them.

You’re a Bee. This Is What It Feels Like.

I told him that the word “understand” gave me the willies, and he said, “It is funny that we would hesitate to use the word understand. A primate researcher wouldn’t hesitate for a minute to use the word.”

But, he noted, humans are separated from chimpanzees by perhaps six million years of evolution and from insects by 500 million years or more. What the two species are doing could be computationally quite different.

He does suspect, he says, that bees, with their many abilities — he trained them to put a ball in a hole and showed that they can learn from each other to pull a string for a reward — may have “a kind of more flexible intelligence that allows you to solve all sorts of problems.”

I also turned to David Anderson at Stanford, who doesn’t work on bees, and wasn’t involved in this study. He studies fruit flies, but he is a champion of both of sophistication in insect brains, and of caution in judging how far that sophistication goes.

“It is difficult to know what such a task ‘means’ for the bees,” he wrote in an email, “from a ‘conceptual’ standpoint, because we do not understand the strategy that the bees’ brains are using to solve the problem.”

The eventual resolution of some of these questions, will come when researchers can see what is actually going in the brain, Dr. Anderson suggested.

Ms. Howard also pointed to deciphering brain processes as a future goal. “So far,” she said, “we don’t know how any animal represents ‘nothing’ in the brain.”

Can You Pick the Bees Out of This Insect Lineup?

James Gorman is a science writer at large and the host and writer of the video feature “ScienceTake”. He joined The Times in 1993 and is the author of several books, including “How to Build a Dinosaur,” written with the paleontologist Jack Horner. 

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/07/science/bees-intelligence-zero.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FBees&action=click&contentCollection=science&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection