Spelling bees? No, but they can do arithmetic, say researchers

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Study says honeybees can learn to carry out exact numerical calculations

Honeybees can learn to add and subtract, according to research showing that while the insects have tiny brains, they are still surprisingly clever.

Researchers behind the study have previously found that honeybees can apparently understand the concept of zero, and learn to correctly indicate which of two groups of objects is the smaller.

But now they say insects can learn to carry out exact numerical calculations such as adding and subtracting a given number.

“Their brain can manage a long-term rule and applying that to a mathematical problem to come up with a correct answer,” said Dr Adrian Dyer, co-author of the research from RMIT University in Australia. “That is a different type of number processing to spontaneous quantity judgments.”

If the team are right, the insects are in good company. While it was once thought that only humans could manage such calculations, the authors note recent research has revealed a veritable menagerie of creatures can keep track of numbers or even add or subtract.

“[There was] evidence that other primates could do it and then an African grey parrot, Alex, famously could do it, but also some spiders could do it,” said Dyer.

The team say the latest research adds to a growing body of evidence, including human studies, that language is not necessary for learning how to manipulate numbers. And there’s more. “It is teaching us a lot about what brains can do and what necessary structures you might need in brains to achieve certain outcomes,” said Dyer.

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