These insects’ brains may be tiny, but they’re better with numbers than many human children and they are past masters at communicating life skills

Crunch numbers

Last week, Australian scientists announced that honeybees (Apis mellifera) can learn to add and subtract. Fourteen bees were put through 100 training exercises in a maze – and got the correct answer between 64% and 72% of the time. “It is not that every bee could do this [spontaneously], but we could teach them to do it,” said Dr Adrian Dyer, co-author of the research.

Solve tasks

In 2017, researchers from Queen Mary University of London demonstratedthat bees can learn to gain a reward and then show others to do the same. The bees were taught by a decoy bee to move a small ball to a particular location – and some of them even managed to solve the task more efficiently by shortening the distance.

Give directions

Karl von Frisch was awarded the 1973 Nobel prize for decoding the “waggle dance” performed by bees to inform hive-mates about the location of pollen sources. On returning to the hive, a bee vibrates its wings in such a way as to relay information about the location of food in relation to the position of the sun.

Understand zero 

Honeybees were the first insect species to be observed to have a concept of zero, a numerical notion that human children find difficult to learn. Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne last year showed that bees conceive zero as a number but they were unclear why had this mathematical skill.

Share decisions

Bees have also developed a sense of democracy. When looking for a location for a new home for, say, 10,000 bees, 300 older bees form a “senate” and fly off looking for options. They use the waggle dance described above to communicate the potential locations, the number of dance repetitions indicating the quality of the site.