How maths-solving Honeybees could help AI


Honeybees can solve a type of maths test without any need for numbers – a discovery that could be used to develop smarter artificial intelligence – according to new research from the University of Sheffield. 

In the study, by researchers in the University’s Department of Computer Science and their international collaborators, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, honeybees were found to be using continuous, non-numerical cues to solve a maths problem. 

The insight into how honeybees solve numerical problems could be used to design more sophisticated machines based on the brains of animals, which have evolved to find the simplest, most efficient way to carry out certain tasks.

The methods used in the study could also provide a new, alternative blueprint for testing numerical cognition in animals. Most previous studies attempt to control for at least one non-numerical cue, whereas the Sheffield study is the first to propose a new method that carefully assesses non-numerical continuous cues. 

Determining how different brains, especially those with a miniature brain, solve numerical tasks also provides a valuable insight into the evolutionary roots of cognition.

Through a task that is commonly used to test numerical cognition in bees and a variety of other animals, the Sheffield team discovered that honeybees can discriminate between placards displaying different numbers of elements without their brains having to process numerical data.

Honeybees were individually trained to identify placards showing different numbers of shapes. Some bees learned to find a sugary reward at the placards that had the most shapes on display while others learned to find the sugary treat at the placards showing the fewest number of shapes.

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 sugary treat.

Since these visual cues are computationally simpler to process by a bee’s brain, it is a more efficient way for bees to use them in solving the task, instead of solving a complex cognitive task of numerosity.

Says Dr HaDi MaBouDi, the lead author on the paper who is based at the University of Sheffield:

“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.”

 He adds:

“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.” 

The research paper, Non-numerical strategies used by bees to solve numerical cognition tasks, is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. To view the paper, visit: 

Chris Price
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