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.

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