In a discovery that could have implications for the development of artificial intelligence, researchers at RMIT in Australia and the University of Toulouse in France have found that bees can do basic arithmetic. The discovery that bees have the ability to add and subtract shows that the busy little insects are capable of a sophisticated level of cognition and proves once again that brain power isn't necessarily dependent on brain size.

Last year, the same research team demonstrated that bees can understand the concept of zero by training them to select images containing the least number of elements. They then set out to determine if their number skills went even further – namely could they add and subtract? They did this by training individual honeybees in a Y-shaped maze, with a reward of sugar water when they made the right choice and a solution of bitter-tasting quinine if they made the wrong one.

At the entrance of the maze the bee was exposed to a set of one to five shapes, which were either blue, which represented "plus one," or yellow, which meant "subtract one." Having viewed this initial number, the bee was sent through a small hole into a "decision chamber" which had a passage marked with the correct solution to the problem on one side and a passage with a wrong answer on the other. The researchers say they changed the answer randomly throughout the experiment to prevent the bees learning to fly to just one side of the maze.

Initially the bees chose their path randomly, but after around 100 trials that took from four to seven hours, the bees learned that blue meant add one, and yellow meant subtract one, and they demonstrated the ability to apply these rules to different numbers. The researchers point out that even basic math problems such as this require two levels of brain processing.

"You need to be able to hold the rules around adding and subtracting in your long-term memory, while mentally manipulating a set of given numbers in your short-term memory," says RMIT's Associate Professor Adrian Dyer. "On top of this, our bees also used their short-term memories to solve arithmetic problems, as they learned to recognize plus or minus as abstract concepts rather than being given visual aids. Our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected."

Indeed, bees join some primates, birds, and spiders on the list of animals that have been found to possess the ability to add and subtract, and it's a list that seems likely to grow. But it's intelligence of the artificial sort the researchers say could benefit from such a discovery.

"If math doesn't require a massive brain, there might also be new ways for us to incorporate interactions of both long-term rules and working memory into designs to improve rapid AI learning of new problems," says Dyer.

The team's research appears in Science Advances.

Source: RMIT