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Bees can count TOO!

Have you ever wished for bees that could do your math homework for you?

Neither have I, but according to Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, Head of Visual Neuroscience at Queensland Brain Institute and Associate Professor Marie Dacke, honeybees can count to four! Keep in mind that more skill is probably required to calculate the tax when Maggie buys 40 pairs of flip-flops, but bees that can count are amazing nonetheless.

How do we know they can actually count?

Srinivasan's research team started by training honeybees to forage from a tunnel. When the bees passed a certain number of landmarks, they were rewarded with a sugar solution. Depending on the experiment, the bees were rewarded after one, two, three or four landmarks.

When the bees had been trained, the research team took away the rewards and observed the bees’ behavior as they travelled along the tunnel. The team wondered how many landmarks the bees would pass before searching for the sugar solution. Remarkably, the bees passed the same number of landmarks before searching for the reward as they did during training.

How do we know the bees were not simply remembering how far to travel?

In order to be certain of this, the research team varied the distances between the objects and also changed the objects used as landmarks to items that the bees have never encountered before. Amazingly, the results of the testing did not change; it did not matter which items were used or how far they were spread apart. During testing, the bees passed the same number of landmarks before searching for the sugar solution!

What did the team learn?

Professor Mandyam Srinivasan and Associate Professor Marie Dacke came to the conclusion that honeybees are capable of counting and remembering up to four objects on the way to a food source.

Now what?

Well, we probably will not be using bees to count the number of lights or triangles on our geodesic dome, but we love learning about bees! Before scientists discovered that honeybees can recognize patterns of up to three dots, they thought that only vertebrates could count. Learning about counting bees might lead to finding interesting abilities in other invertebrates.

If you are set on getting animals to do your math homework, you might want to learn more about how high chickens can count. You can also run your own chicken counting experiments with the hens in our Ken Spencer Science Park!