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It seemed that the bees knew math, but they cheated

The bees they are fascinating animals. They play a major role in flower pollination, inspire engineers with their flight to develop drones and they give us a delicacy as tasty as the honey. But it is that they know math. There have been neither one nor two studies that assure it. At least three research groups have delved into the ability of these insects to perform simple operations and even to understand the concept of zero.

The problem is, we now know that when they made us come to that conclusion they were actually doing traps. They were bluffing and fooled us all with it, but that does not make them fakers, but even more fascinating animals.

Cheating bees pretending they know how to count

If the bees got their math tests right, it wasn’t by chance. They knew what they were doing, but not because they had the ability to distinguish numbers and do calculations, but because they know how to differentiate quantities at a glance.

They do not distinguish numbers, but they can differentiate quantities with the naked eye

It is the conclusion of a study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B by scientists from the Sheffield University. In it, they repeated the same procedure of some previous investigations, but with small changes.

In this type of experiments, also carried out with other animals, two groups of bees. Both are exposed to two panels with different amounts of a given shape or object. The insects in the first group are trained to always go to the one with the lowest number of forms. Those of the second, the highest. This training is achieved by using as a reward a little sugar water. Once they learn where to go, the treat is removed, but the bees, already trained, will always continue to go to the place corresponding to their training. This at the time was interpreted as that they know mathematics or, at least, that they can always count and identify where there is more or less shapes.

However, these scientists suspected that they could be cheating a little. And that’s how they went to next phase of the experiment.

Good eyesight, but little math

What if, in reality, his math skills were rather a good ability to visually distinguish the amounts? This was the question the study authors asked themselves.

This is still an interesting quality of bees

For this reason, they changed the panels to which the bees had to go. They both had the same number of items. However, in one of them these had wider edges. They also differed in the distance between some forms and others. Thus, a wide visual effect, although the number of shapes was always the same.

When the bees previously trained in the first phase of the experiment had to choose, the ones that used to go in smaller amounts were those with shorter lengths and objects closer together. Just the opposite happened with the others.

This shows that they do not know how to count, but they do have enough intelligence to discern quantities. Perhaps it would be too bold to say that they don’t know math. They simply do not conceive them in the same way that we do. But they know how to perfectly manage to understand them. That is also important.