New research has found that you don’t need a massive brain to do maths.
In fact, the humble honeybee and its miniature noggin have been found to possess an innate ability to solve problems.
Boffins at the University of Sheffield have discovered that bees are able to pass a test relying on continuous, non-numerical cues rather than numbers.
The task used for the study, which is common in research into animals’ ability to count, involved a sugary treat being hidden behind one of a number of placards. Each of them then had a different number of shapes displayed on it.
Honeybees were individually trained to identify placards showing different numbers of shapes.
Some learned to find a sugary tidbit at the placards that had the most shapes on display, while others found the treat at the placards showing the fewest number of shapes.
The Sheffield team saw that once the bees learned this rule, they were able to quickly identify the placard with the highest or lowest number of shapes on them in order to find the treat. Genius!
The study then attempted to find out whether the bees were using non-number clues by showing two placards that had the same number of shapes but were spread out differently and weren’t the same size.
None had a treat – which means that if the bees had used numbers to solve the first task they should have flown to each placard equally in search of a prize.
Dr HaDi MaBouDi, the lead author on the paper who is based at the University of Sheffield, said: “The results of our study show that animals are incredibly clever and can solve tasks in effective and unexpected ways.
“This will be very practical in the future of artificial intelligence for designing smart machines based on animals that have evolved for some particular tasks.
“This doesn’t mean that bees or other non-verbal animals can’t understand numbers, but it does suggest that animals use non-numeric properties to solve the math problems they often face if such information is available.
“However, we hope that our study provides insight into better methods of exploring mathematical cognition in animals.”
There is hope that the discovery could prove to be a massive step forward in how artificial intelligence and machines are designed in the future – using the design of the brains of animals that have evolved to find the simplest, most efficient way to carry out certain tasks.