What A Bee Knows

February 5, 2015

A bee’s brain has about one million neurons – compared to the 90 billion neurons in a human’s brain. For a long time, animal behaviorists thought it was the power of the hive that led to bees’ impressive feats and that a single bee really wasn’t that bright. That thinking has begun to change and now some scientists believe that an individual bee’s mental abilities may be on par or exceed that of many mammals.

Good Communicators

Bees communicate with one another through a complex series of movements called the “waggle dance.” They use this sophisticated form of communication to tell one another where to find nectar and pollen. Discovered during the early part of the 20th century by Karl von Frisch, an Austrian scientist, it was our first clue that bees may actually be capable of what we would describe as “having thoughts.”

Art Critics

Bees have been shown to be able to distinguish between two different styles of art. When bees had to differentiate between paintings by Monet and Picasso in order to receive a sweet reward, the bees unerringly identified the correct one. When the experiment was repeated using black and white versions of the paintings (to eliminate any preferences the bees might have for color), the results were the same.

Math Geniuses

Remarkably, it appears that bees can count – at least up to the number four. When bees had to fly by a specific number of markers in a tunnel to get to a food reward, they could readily do so even when the markers where moved around or presented in different shapes or colors. It appears that bees can bee taught, to some extent, the ability to recognize symbols representing numbers and also to understand the numbers that these symbols represent.

Flexible Learners

Like any good student, bees can combine things they have learned in one situation and apply them to a new situation. For instance, after learning to recognize abstract shapes that function as guideposts in a maze, bees have the capability of realizing that these shapes may mean different things in a new maze.

Sentient Beings

And most amazingly, new research suggests that bees have “metacognition,” which is the awareness of one’s own thought processes. In a set of experiments, bees were faced with the task of choosing between landing on a spot above a black bar or a spot below it. Depending upon where they landed, they would either receive a sweet or bitter drink. They were also given the option of avoiding the task if they weren’t sure they would succeed. Scientists found that bees opted out of the task when it was difficult to make the right decision and performed it when a positive outcome was assured. These experiments suggest that bees use probability to guide their decision making process, which is considered a basic tenet of metacognition.