Weird But True: Honeybees Can Learn the Difference Between Even and Odd Numbers

They’re the first non-humans to exhibit this ability, indicating that you don’t need a brain cortex to do it.

extreme closeup of honey bee
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  • Honeybees are the first non-humans to demonstrate an ability to learn the difference between even and odd numbers.
  • The honeybee experiment could lead to a better understanding of how humans perform parity tasks (whether a number is even or odd).
  • Parity tasks may not be as complicated as previously believed.

    Humans are so smart that we can easily learn the difference between even numbers and odd numbers. And until a new study emerged, humans believed we were the only species capable of this feat, known as a parity task.

    That may all change with the knowledge that honeybees can learn to tell the difference between even and odd groupings. With brains just a fraction of the size of our own—human brains run with 86 billion neurons, while a honeybee’s brain falls just shy of one million neurons—either the parity game isn’t quite as complex as we once thought, or honeybees just have a different way of learning parity.

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    The study, published last week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, highlighted how honeybees “demonstrated an ability to learn the concepts of odd and even” and then applied the concepts to numbers greater than the researchers believed they could understand. It was all quite impressive for a flying insect.

    “The findings should encourage further testing of parity processing in a wider variety of animals to inform on its potential biological roots, evolutionary drivers and potential technology innovations for concept processing,” the authors write. “These findings suggest that odd and even processing tasks potentially have a biological ground in how numbers are processed beyond cultural transmission.”

    In the study, our valiant honeybee heroes were sequestered into two control groups. By showing bees cards with anywhere from one to ten printed shapes, one group was trained to expect that landing on cards with even-numbered groupings earned them a rewarding sugar water treat. In contrast, landing on cards with odd numbers resulted in a bitter-tasting quinine. The other group learned the opposite. The even-odd lesson kept up until the honeybees could choose the correct answer at least 80 percent of the time.

    While humans have proven they can more quickly process even numbers, the honeybees showed the opposite; the group getting sugar water for odd-number groupings learned more quickly.

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    The study then took a decisively advanced turn, jumping past the previous limit of ten and including groupings of either 11 or 12. The bees retained a greater than 70 percent accuracy rate in the master class.

    The authors say they’d need further study to see just how honeybees learned to categorize numbers by parity and if it is cognitively complex, simple, or if a pre-existing neural mechanism allowed them to pull it off. Since humans use the cortex in number processing and honeybees can manage it without a cortex, it is “strongly suggesting that alternative brain structures can facilitate such abilities.” This idea could lead to a potential change in how we approach similar processes for humans.

    honey bees on honeycomb
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    This knowledge has a conceivable benefit when crafting a more efficient machine learning model, the authors say, by indicating that “building neuromorphic computing solutions with very simplified mechanisms is possible.”

    If the honeybee can pull it off, maybe humans can simplify things too.

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