Secrets of Math From the Bee Whisperer

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sciborg2

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« on: January 22, 2020, 08:10:50 pm »
Secrets of Math From the Bee Whisperer

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It might seem a little strange — bees are insects, after all; what do they know about mathematics? A lot, it turns out. These eusocial flying insects can add, subtract and even comprehend the concept of zero.

“You can see their decision-making process in their movements and flight patterns,” Howard said. While deciding which of two answers is correct, they often fly toward one of the solutions before seeming to think better of it and flying off toward the other.

Howard teaches one bee at a time, placing it next to an apparatus known as a Y maze, a covered box shaped like a block letter Y. The bee enters the bottom leg of the Y and sees a mathematical question, expressed in shapes and colors. In the arithmetic lessons, blue shapes mean “add 1” to the given number of shapes, and yellow shapes mean “subtract 1.” To answer the question, the bee chooses from one of two possible solutions posted at the entrances to the Y’s upper arms. The bee will find a reward — sugar water — in the arm associated with the correct answer, and a punishment — tonic water, which bees find bitter — in the arm with the incorrect answer.

To teach bees about zero, she first trained them to understand the concept of “less than.” As with the addition and subtraction problems, she offered reinforcements for correct choices. Once an individual bee demonstrated it understood “less than,” she advanced that bee to the testing phase of her experiment, where it would decide if any number of shapes is less than zero shapes — a number the bee had never encountered before. Each bee had only one chance to answer. The bees often identified “zero shapes” as smaller than any number of shapes, and Howard concluded that they must possess an innate understanding that zero is smaller than any positive integer.

For each experiment, Howard trains and tests approximately 100 random bees from the thousands in her hives. Handling them is simple enough. After each correct choice, the bee flies back to the hive on its own, to offload its sweet reward. Then, at some point, it’ll come back. That’s because bees are central place foragers, meaning they will remember the experiment and return to it for additional resources. To prepare for her next pupil, Howard changes the stimuli on the Y maze. She has hundreds, possibly thousands of stimuli printed and laminated.

“They’re laminated so we can clean them with ethanol, because bees will scent-mark,” said Howard. “They’ll do anything to cheat the tests. They’re smart! They’ll mark the correct answer. Bees are not as simple as we used to think they are. Or even as some people still think they are.”

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« Reply #1 on: January 22, 2020, 08:54:33 pm »
IIRC, wasn't it shown that ants navigate by math?  That is, they may take a meandering path from point A to B, but they can take the straight-line path back from B to A because they mathematically "know" how many steps they've taken and so the actual distance covered away from the origin point.
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