Bees are some of the smartest creatures on this planet. Although small, their brains can process and learn large amounts of information like faces, locations, and even mathematical operations!
Let’s take a closer look at why honey bees are so intelligent.
1. Bees’ Brain: Small But Powerful
Let’s start by briefly looking into their brain.
It doesn’t take much to realize the size of a bee’s brain is much smaller than that of a human being. It is, in fact, only one millimeter in size!
But does having a tiny brain mean honey bees are not smart?
Researchers seem to challenge that old belief. They have found bees are able to make conceptual relationships such as determining whether two or more objects are the same or different or whether one is below or above the other.
This skill was thought to be too complex for small insects like the humble honey bee, given they don’t have a big and complex brain like primates and humans do.
Honey bees have approximately 950,000 neurons, while humans have about 100 billion neurons. Big difference, right?
Well, it seems having a small brain doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of intelligence.
2. Bees Know How To Find Their Way Home From Miles Away
Bees have a tremendous sense of direction and can navigate using the sun’s position in the sky. They can accurately associate the time of the day with the sun’s movement according to its azimuth.
Not only that, but they also have a backup compass based on their memory of the sun’s movement in relation to the landscape. They use this compass during cloudy days when the sun is hard to spot.
Amazingly, they can also navigate using landmarks that help them locate food sources and find their way back to their hive.
When finding their way to and from a location, they consider different landmark cues or features that will help them guide them to their goal destination. Some of these cues are the color, distance to a food source, and even texture of the landmark.
Researchers believe bees learn these visual cues during their orientation flights before they start foraging.
During these flights, a bee hovers, looking at the entrance to the hive, turning in small arcs back and forth. After a few seconds, the bee increases the size of the arcs until she returns a few minutes later.
This behavior allows the bee to explore the landscape around the hive and form memories of routes and landmarks. These memories get reinforced as they go to and from the hive while on their daily foraging trips.
3. Bees Can Recognize Faces
In a 2005 study, researchers demonstrated that honey bees can recognize human faces.
These scientists trained individual bees to visit a specific photo of a human face through a series of exercises. They did this by giving them a sugar reward after landing on the target face.
In the following stages, the researchers took away the reward and also added photos of similar faces to see if they would get confused or distracted. The bees were still able to land on the target face, showing they could distinguish different faces from each other.
Have you asked yourself in bees can remember you?
They likely do!
Two days later, the same exercises were practiced with two of the bees used in the initial stages to see how long they could retain this information.
These bees successfully landed on their target faces, showing they could still identify AND remember the face.
Recent studies have shown that bees can learn similar faces using standard face recognition tests that are usually used on humans!
Despite their smaller brain, these creatures were able to process human faces holistically, a complex cognitive process in which familiar elements (such as mouth, eyes, nose, and ears) are integrated as a unit.
It is this cognitive capability that makes humans so good at recognizing faces.
4. Bees Can Solve Maths Problems – Their Own Way
The fact that bees use different strategies to find the solution to problems like those found in maths doesn’t mean they are not intelligent. While we can solve complex cognitive processes involving numbers, bees can reach the correct answers using other clues that don’t include numerical properties.
This is what researchers at the University of Sheffield were able to demonstrate. Bees can determine the difference between two numerical values using their visual skills instead of processing numerical information.
In the initial phase of the study, researchers taught 10 honey bees to fly to a display or sign with the most number of shapes. They did this by placing a sugary reward on the correct sign.
At the same time, another group of 10 bees was trained to do the opposite – fly towards the sign with the fewest number of shapes.
Once 8 out of 10 bees chose the correct answer depending on their training, researchers repeated the test without giving them a reward and using different shapes on the signs.
To determine whether bees used visual clues instead of numbers, researchers used two pairs of signs with the same number of shapes but different continuous (or non-numerical) properties.
Because none of the signs had a sugary reward, honeybees should have shown no preference for any display. If they had used numbers to solve the problems, they should have flown to all of the signs looking for the reward.
However, it was found that bees trained to find signs with the highest number of shapes still preferred signs with the highest level of non-numerical variables. Similarly, bees trained to look for signs with the smallest number of shapes still looked for signs with the lowest levels of non-numerical variables, disregarding numbers completely.
Honey bees responded to continuous cues on the shapes and not the number of elements on the signs. It is thought they use these visual cues because they are simpler to process than solving a complex task involving numbers.
5. Bees Have A Very Effective Way To Communicate With Each Other
Bees are highly social creatures. They live in a highly organized society where every member has a role, and their individual actions are coordinated to ensure the survival of the colony.
Therefore, communication is critical for bees. It’s what allows them to work like a well-oiled machine.
Their unique way of communicating with each other has been the subject of numerous studies and has fascinated people for decades. You have probably heard of it too. It’s called dance language or waggle dance.
By performing a series of movements, an individual bee can tell other bees where reliable food sources are. During the waggle dance, a worker bee that has returned to the hive after foraging informs other workers of the distance and direction to a specific location.
The waggle dance also has a recruiting component. For example, if the worker bee considers she will need more help to collect food from a particular source, she will dance on the surface of the comb to transmit vibrations. These vibrations will alert other forager bees in the hive so they can come out and help.
6. Bees Are Outstanding Students
Remember how bees can learn how to recognize faces and solve math problems without numbers?
Well, it’s no secret that bees can be trained to learn complex tasks using sugary rewards.
Several research studies have demonstrated bees are avid learners who can perform complex and simple tasks. The studies mentioned in this article are just a few examples.
Even more impressive, they can also teach other bees to do a particular action, as shown in the Queen Mary University of London.
Learning is part of a bee’s life. It helps them thrive as a colony. For example, whenever they swarm and establish in a new place, they have to learn their way back to their new hive as well as the location of new food sources.
Without their ability to learn, the colony would hardly survive.
7. Bees Are So Smart, They Help Us Improve Our Technology
Most of us are aware of bees’ unique role on this planet. They are essential pollinators that promote the reproduction of plants like those found in many of our crops.
But did you know that we can also find technological advancements by studying bees and their behavior?
At least that’s what many researchers think…
By looking into how bees’ brain operates and learns, researchers and engineers believe they can find effective solutions to improve AI.
Because they can solve difficult problems, like recognizing human faces and solving math problems, with a tiny brain.
Bees are smart. They can learn and solve tasks we once thought were too complex for insects like honey bees. Their great cognitive abilities allow them to live in a highly organized and efficient society where every bee has a role, and all tasks are perfectly coordinated for the benefit of the colony.
Decades of scientific research have provided countless examples where bees have been able to learn how to solve problems humans complete in our daily lives – but with a much smaller brain!
Bees have so many exceptional and diverse skills that you can’t help but appreciate them once you know more about them.