The brilliant bee

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Bees can count, read symbols and solve problems that would perplex some of the smartest mammals. Some have an eye for art appreciation, having been trained to pick either Monet or Picasso’s paintings from a choice of the artists’ work. They may even have a form of self-awareness, and all of this with a brain the size of a pinhead.
That’s the extraordinary picture coming from recent research, summarised in an article in the magazine New Scientist (24 November 2012).

It’s been known for more than half a century that foraging bees signal the direction and distance to nearby flowers by a ‘waggle dance’. But it now turn out that if another bee has been to the same location and found danger there, such as a spider, it will interrupt the dance with a butt to head to negate the message.

Bees are also known to carry out spring cleaning of the hive and to keep its temperature stable.

‘When temperatures soar, the workers sprinkle water over the honeycomb and beat their wings to produce a cooling draft,’ says the article’s author, New Scientist features editor David Robson.

One of the most remarkable of the skills of the bees’ skills is the ability to count. Foragers seem to count landmarks when navigating to a flower patch. This was shown by Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London. He put obstacles (tall tents) in the way of the flight path – and it seems that the number of obstacles rather than the total distance was the feature that stood out for the bees.

But they can do more than that. In one test the bees were shown a cue card with a picture of three leaves on it, and then given a choice between two cards, one with two lemons and the other with three (which led to a reward). They learned to go for the three-lemon card – thus showing that they were no simply responding to a specific image but actually generalising to the concept of number – of in this case ‘three-ness’.

They can do more. Martin Giurfa at the University of Toulouse in France trained his bees to learn the difference between a symmetrical shape and an unsymmetrical one – the reward of sweet syrup coming when they chose symmetry. He says that it didn’t take them lomng to do this. They went on to learn other spatial relationships such as /above/below and left/right – and they have also mastered the concept of same/different.

Thinking further

It turns out that bees can go even further, to the next level of thinking in which we think about thinking – when we stand back and assess the quality of our own thoughts. Clint Perry at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, has shown this. His first step was to train his bees to discriminate between images. Some of the tests were easy, and some more difficult.

His next step was to give them the chance to opt out from making a decision – they were provided with an escape port, to go through if they didn’t want to take the risk of getting things wrong.

It turned out that the bees tended to avoid the more difficult trials rather than the easier ones. It also turned out that on the trials that they did decide to take, they were more likely to answer correctly – suggesting that they had accurately judged which trials they could and couldn’t pass.

And all this is being done in a brain the size of a seed of grass. Indeed, there are things that they can’t do. They can’t count beyond four, for instance, and their vision is limited to the outlines of things, rather than the fine details. ‘If they are looking for a certain colour in a sea of objects, they check each one in turn, as if they can’t take in the whole scene with a single glance,’ notes David Robson.

On the other hand, he says, they have around the world shown around 60 separate behaviour patterns, including six different kinds of dance. He compares this with the situation for rabbits (thought to show around 30 distinct behaviours), beavers (about 50, including feeling trees, building dams and storing wood) – and even bottlenose dolphins with 120 or so – ‘only about twice the number a worker honeybee manages’.

And that, he points out, might well make us look more closely at what other insects – such as spiders or cockroaches – may be capable of.