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New Study Shows Honeybees’ Surprising Math Skills

I’m gonna have to reach back a bit for this reference, but here we go anyway: ‘member that one throwaway joke on Family Guy where Tom Tucker says “coming up next, can bees think? A new study shows that no, they cannot.” Well, I guess Mr. Tucker should’ve checked his sources, because guess what? Bees can think! Or at least they can think well enough to perform basic mathematics.

According to a new study in Scientific Advances, common honeybees can be trained to perform basic addition and subtraction mathematics. That’s quite surprising considering a honey bee’s brain is about 100,000 times smaller than a human’s. But according to the authors of the study, you don’t actually need to be that smart, or even know how to speak, to use math. “Language and prior advanced numerical understanding are not a prerequisite necessary for the ability to calculate addition and subtraction solutions,” they wrote.

To train the bees, the researchers utilized a special L-shaped apparatus.

This wacky gizmo featured arrays of colored squares. The bees would be shown an array of squares, and then given a choice between an array with more squares or one with less. If they answered correctly, they were rewarded with a treat, and if they answered incorrectly, they were punished with a stinky smell. After 100 trials utilizing this method, the researchers found that, even without rewards and punishments, the bees would select the correct answer 63 to 72 percent of the time. Not exactly great, but certainly high enough to suggest something greater than dumb luck.

Even with their pea-sized brains, a honeybee is capable of mathematical thought. If a bee’s brain can perform math with just a drop of nectar, it makes you wonder how the right stimulation could power up the human brain.