How Smart Are Bees? Understanding Bee Intelligence

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Scientists searching to answer the question, “How smart are bees?” have, time and again, uncovered breakthroughs that imply there’s a great deal more to this animal than meets the eye. Though their brains are the size of a grass seed, and their commitment to their hives simply a lack of individuality, bees are actually highly intelligent in areas relating to mathematics, communication, and emotion.

Math Skills

We know bees are smart enough to make honey, but did you know they also have a gift for mathematics? In studies, bees have demonstrated strong skills in numeracy, which is the ability to perceive numbers. It’s a behavior we usually associate with higher developed mammals such as chimps, bears, and dogs, and it’s rare to find this perception in insects.

A study showed that bees can count. Researchers accomplished this by rewarding bees for stopping at a particular landmark in a series. The bees could do this even when the length or type of the landmark was altered. Even more impressive, bees understand the concept of zero.

Though zero seems like a simple idea to humans, the ability to perceive the absence of everything is actually quite abstract. Bees proved they understood the idea when researchers presented them some white pages with black dots. Bees were rewarded for picking the option with the fewest dots. Miraculously, when they were shown a page with no dots, the bees could recognize that as the matching option in the pattern.

Communication

Bees are widely known as social animals, but the extent to which they are able to communicate with each other has astounded people the world over and has made scientists seriously wonder just how smart bees are. When a bee makes a discovery, like an area rich in pollen or a new place to gather water, they’ll communicate these findings to other bees through dance.

Bees perform a distinct waggle dance to communicate to their sisters the approximate distance and direction of their new find. During the waggle dance, bees flap their wings and move in a figure-8. Experienced bees can tell by the angle of their bodies relative to their ceiling what their friend is trying to communicate.

Emotional Life

When you look at bees from a distance, there is nothing about their behavior that implies any amount of emotion. But there may be a great deal of feelings going on underneath. We have not yet been able to prove that bees have emotions, but some experiments have made scientists wonder if some we will someday.

To study bee pessimism, researchers analyzed how bees approached chemical mixtures with different gradients of either appealing or unappealing smells. Half of the bees studied were shaken in a chemical mixing device for a minute. This was meant to agitate the bees, to see if it would alter their approach to the chemicals. Sure enough, the shaken bees were more hesitant to approach the good-smelling chemicals than the non-shaken bees. From this, we can scientifically say that bees have a persistent state of negative affect that’s triggered by agitation.

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