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It might seem a little strange — bees are insects, after all; what do they know about mathematics? A lot, it turns out. These eusocial flying insects can add, subtract and even comprehend the concept of zero.
Wait — some bees are better at math than other bees?
We actually have quantified it. We’ve got a theoretical physicist on our team who is working on bee numerical ability. He ran some Bayesian analysis on my results. We were hoping to find a moment where we could say, “OK, bees switch from not being very good at the arithmetic task to understanding it at this certain point.” But we found no consistency between the individuals. The moment when an individual bee switched from doing really poorly to doing really well happened at a different stage for each bee.
So if you’re right that number sense really does transcend language and culture, what does that mean for our own understanding of numbers?
We’re only beginning to ask about the implications. Still, my team just got a paper accepted in a teaching journal. Our paper suggests that the way we train bees to develop numerical abilities has implications not only for human learning but also for artificial intelligence and design.