How high can bees count?

Bees are not only able to build fantastic hexagonal honeycombs they’re apparently also able to count! But do they deserve their reputation as nature’s mathematicians? Georgia Mills spoke to Srini Srinivasan from the University of Queensland to find out how they discovered counting bees…

  • Bees were trained to fly down a tunnel with a reward of sugar water at the end, and a series of identical landmarks labelled 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. along the route.
  • One of the landmarks contained the reward and the bees had to test each one to discover its location. This was repeated several times until the bees learned the location of the reward.
  • The spacing of the landmarks was then changed, but the reward remained at the same landmark, and the bees had to find it once again.
  • They were able to ‘count’ the number of landmarks and would go straight to the correct location bypassing the others that did not contain a reward.
  • The highest number of sequential landmarks the bees were able to ‘count’ was 4.
  • Four is a universal number as when briefly presented with an image containing a number of objects, the largest amount most animals can recognise accurately is 4-5. This process is called subitising.
  • Counting to 4 is useful for bees when for example deciding whether or not to land on a flower to collect pollen. If there are 3-4 bees already there then it is probably not worth their effort.
  • Counting has also been looked at in fish birds and chimpanzees, and in each case the number four keeps cropping up, suggesting universality.
  • The tunnel experiment was actually designed to investigate how bees navigate and the corresponding ‘waggle dance’ that they use to communicate information.

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

Why do Bees Build Hexagons? Honeycomb Conjecture explained by Thomas Hales

Mathematician Thomas Hales explains the Honeycomb Conjecture in the context of bees. Hales proved that the hexagon tiling (hexagonal honeycomb) is the most efficient way to maximise area whilst minimising perimeter.

Produced by Tom Rocks Maths intern Joe Double, with assistance from Tom Crawford. Thanks to the Oxford University Society East Kent Branch for funding the placement and to the Isaac Newton Institute for arranging the interview.

Blueprint Interview

Interview with the University of Oxford’s Blueprint magazine about my mission to popularise maths and my outreach work with the St John’s Inspire Programme. The full interview with Blueprint’s Shaunna Latchman can be found in the online magazine here.

While some avoid arithmetic at all costs, Tom fully immerses himself daily teaching maths to the first and second year undergraduate students at St Hugh’s College. He also arranges activities for St John’s College as the Access and Outreach Associate for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) for the Inspire programme. Another activity is planning and filming content for his own outreach programme – Tom Rocks Maths.

‘It was the subject that felt most natural to me’, explains Tom, who first realised his love for numbers aged seven when his class had been set ten long multiplication questions. He raced through the whole book. However it wasn’t until he received ten A*s in his GCSEs that he began considering an Oxbridge education. ‘Academically there isn’t much of a difference [between Oxford and Cambridge]’ Tom comments, ‘but Oxford felt more like home.’

Later, after completing his PhD in Applied Maths at Cambridge, he was offered an internship with public engagement team, the Naked Scientists. The group strip back science to help make a complicated theory easy to digest. Weekly podcasts are broadcasted through BBC Radio 5 Live and ABC Australia, where audiences reach up to one million listeners a week.

Tom saw an opportunity to bring his appreciation for maths to the masses, but he wanted to do it with a twist. Eager to move away from the stereotypes of maths being a serious subject taught by older men in tweed jackets, he thought ‘what is the best way to make maths less serious? Doing it in my underwear!’ And so, the Naked Mathematician was born.

Since joining St Hugh’s, Tom continues to break down day-to-day activities on his YouTube channel to prove that maths is an integral part of everything we do.

Tom_Crawford_2

His passion for engagement doesn’t end there. The Inspire programme, part of the Link Colleges initiative, is a series of events, visits, workshops and online contact for pupils in years 9 to 13. Tom works with the non-selective state schools in the London boroughs of Harrow and Ealing.

The Link Colleges programme simplifies communication between UK schools and the University. Every school in the country is linked with an Oxford college, with the hope that this connection will encourage students to explore the possibility of attending university.

‘The aim is to have sustained contact with the same group of students over five years,’ says Tom. ‘There are still students who haven’t thought about university, or maybe it’s not the norm in their family or area to attend university. So, we explain what it is, how it works and the positives and negatives. We want to inform and inspire them.’

Tom is responsible for arranging all STEM events across the year for 60 students in each year group. He calls on the expertise of his colleagues at Oxford as well as encouraging a partnership with the University of Cambridge and several universities in London. ‘The syllabus includes various topics such as the science of food and using maths to improve diet.’

During Tom’s famed Maths vs Sport talk, students are encouraged to participate in an on-stage penalty shootout – but only after learning about the mathematical makeup behind such a pivotal moment in a football game, of course.

Tom believes maths is made more accessible by relating it the world around us. He encourages his students to question things, like why bees make hexagonal shapes in their hives and how many Pikachus it takes to light up a lightbulb.

Whether visiting schools up and down the country to deliver talks, recording the weekly dose of Funbers for BBC radio – fun facts about numbers that we didn’t realise we secretly wanted to know – or in front of his class of students, Tom is certainly making waves in the world of maths.

Bees – Nature’s Mathematicians

I went to meet some bees to see their amazing maths skills at work… Live interview with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire with a special guest appearance from University Challenge’s Bobby Seagull.

Footage from my adventure will be featured soon on Naked Maths.

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