Like many people, honeybees seem to prioritize their numbers from left to right.
To recognize a certain number, honeybees tend to fly to the left when the two options are given fewer options and to the right when the options represent a larger number, a new study suggests. The discovery suggests that honeybees have a “mental number line” and that this association has biological roots, researchers report on October 17. Journal of the Academy of Sciences.
While other scientists agree that the study makes a compelling case for mental retardation in honeybees, others argue that the new work is an oversimplification of complex human behavior.
Many people have a mental number line that often places the smaller number on the left and the larger number on the right side – if asked to arrange several clusters of grapes in size, they would probably want to increase the number of grapes from left to right. Whether this association is present at birth or learned later in life has long been disputed.
In a previous work he demonstrated that he can count honey bees, and that he also understands the concept of zero (cf.SN: 6/7/18). “With all this in mind, the obvious question is: [is whether honeybees have] the number of the so-called mental line,” says Martin Giurfa, a biologist at the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France. Working from home during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Giurfa tested 134 honeybees (.Apis mellifera(SN: 1/29/15).
First, Giurfa had to teach the bee students to recognize numbers. Using sugar water, he invited Melbeas into a room constructed from a repurposed wine box. For each bee, he hangs a board on the back of the box with some number of symbols on it, one, three or five, and feeds him sugar water so that they learn to mix the number with the food. By the various symbols which seemed to be seen between the visits, the bees themselves recognized the number, not the definite forms or arrangements.
After 30 trips to the box, it was time for an experiment: Giurfa removed the gym board and placed two reflective boards, one on the left wall of the box and one on the right. These new maps had either the same number of symbols as the training maps, fewer or more symbols.
Which panel do the bees fly to – left or right? “It depends on your number,” Giurfa says. The bee in “one” flew 72 percent to the “three” board to the right, while the bee in “five,” 73 percent went to the “three” to the left. “That’s exactly the concept of a mental number line,” Giurfa says. “You align the number based on your report.” If the test number was the same as the training number, the bees did not move left or right.
These experiments make “a very compelling case” for the mental number line in honeybees, says Felicity Muth, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the study. “They have more powers that really rule out any other explanations than I can think of.”
Giurfa believes these results show that mental number lines, or at least some parts of them, are present across the animal kingdom. But not everyone is convinced.
“The involvement of complex human concepts, such as the ‘number line’, should be avoided because they seriously distort the reality of the phenomena that make them possible,” Rafael Núñez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San. Student
Núñez, who co-authored an article critical of the early chicken study, thinks animal research should address why bees and chickens have innate mental traits, while some groups of people, such as the ones he studied in Papua New Guinea, do not. Giurfa acknowledges that culture plays a role in explaining why not every adult naturally orders numbers from left to right, but feels that the evidence is there for the biological view.SN: 8/23/21).
This study doesn’t stop at explaining why the brains of bees, chicks and babies all turn in the same left-handed order, but it does provide a possible answer – their brains are asymmetrical. All three have brains that process information differently on the right and left side. “Perhaps inherent in these lateralized brain systems,” Giurfa says.
A common system for ordering numbers, if truly publicized, may illustrate how remarkably similar animal minds can be to ours. Although some cognitive powers seem to be uniquely human, Giurfa believes there is a danger of dismissing animal capacities. In some ways, he says, we are unlike animals, but in others we are very similar. Denying this similarity is not what helps us understand what we are.
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