Scientists Create Tiny Four Cell Computer Brain To Show That Bees Can Count

Bees are amazingly complicated, and researchers have found they can execute tasks by using mathematical skills that include counting and deducing which numbers are larger or smaller.

In a study to be published in the journal IScience in January 2019, scientists from Queen Mary University of London wanted to gain a better understanding of how the brains of these enigmatic insects handle mathematics, UPI reports.

So with the use of a computer, they designed a simple brain model that uses only four nerve cells — which is far fewer than the insect’s brain actually has. By creating simulations, they discovered the computer brain was able to count small quantities simply by studying one item at a time. Then it moves on to inspect the next item. Previous studies have suggested that this is how a bee’s brain counts, ScienceDaily notes. Humans, however, tend to count differently, by glancing at all of the items and counting them together.

But in the case of bees, the researchers theorize this clever behavior to make it much easier to count. Meaning that bees have impressive cognitive abilities that don’t require much brain power. They can, in fact, count up to four or five items. They can even choose smaller or larger numbers and even choose zero as the lesser of two quantities if trained to do so. Amazingly, they even understand the concept of zero.

The researchers found that bees don’t have to understand complex math to achieve these feats of deduction. All a bee needs to do is buzz slowly by one item at a time to make their comparisons. And that uses very little brain power.

“Our model shows that even though counting is generally thought to require high intelligence and large brains, it can easily be done with the smallest of nerve cell circuits connected in the right manner,” Vera Vasas, a researcher at Queen Mary University of London and the study’s lead author noted in a press release. “We suggest that using specific flight movements to scan targets, rather than numerical concepts, explains the bees’ ability to count.”

And scientists say these findings show that animal intelligence doesn’t have to rely on vast stores of neurons. All it needs is a small number of nerve cells to be arranged in the right pattern. But there’s another really cool aspect about this — because this heightens our knowledge of insect intelligence, this could lead the way to more efficient artificial intelligence algorithms. It may open a window into patterns of animal behavior that are pretty sophisticated.

“Careful examination of the actual inspection strategies used by animals might reveal that they often employ active scanning behaviors as shortcuts to simplify complex visual pattern discrimination tasks,” Vasas said. “Hopefully our work will inspire others to look more closely not just at what cognitive tasks animals can solve, but also at how they are solving them.”

Bees may be small and small-brained (having one million nerve cells as compared to 86 million for humans), but the make the best of it by using very efficient computational algorithms to complete tasks. It’s pretty impressive that such a tiny creature can actually solve problems that may well vex most people. If anyone had to depend on me understanding algorithms, well good luck.

That’s all I can say.

The video below is entertaining and informational.

Featured image license CC Attribution 2.0 Creative Commons by Holger Vaga via Flickr

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