Bees do it

Another blow to a traditional conception of “the man of reason.”

Honey bees can count up to four.  Truly.  See below.  So much for Descartes’ idea that using numbers requires an immaterial substance…or, alternatively, bees may have souls??

Evidence for counting in insects, Animal Cognition, May, 2008, by Marie Dacke and Mandyam V. Srinivasan.

Abstract  Here we investigate the counting ability in honeybees by training them to receive a food reward after they have passed a specific number of landmarks. The distance to the food reward is varied frequently and randomly, whilst keeping the number of intervening landmarks constant. Thus, the bees cannot identify the food reward in terms of its distance from the hive. We find that bees can count up to four objects, when they are encountered sequentially during flight. Furthermore, bees trained in this way are able count novel objects, which they have never previously encountered, thus demonstrating that they are capable of object-independent counting. A further experiment reveals that the counting ability that the bees display in our experiments is primarily sequential in nature. It appears that bees can navigate to food sources by maintaining a running count of prominent landmarks that are passed en route, provided this number does not exceed four.

8 thoughts on “Bees do it

  1. In fairness, I doubt Descartes would have denied that physical mechanisms might register quantitative information in a way which influences their behavioural outputs. I assume he wouldn’t actually consider this to qualify as “counting” in the fullest sense, right?

  2. Richard, Descartes does seem to think that what characterizes notions that require a mind is abstractness. The bees do seem capable of counting abstractly. As the passage quoted above puts it, their counting is “object independent.”

    Margaret Wilson, followed by many later commentators, took the wax argument in the Meditations to be an instance of D’s argument that abstraction implies requiring a mind.

    Stanislas Dehaene has done marvelous research in this area, and it is pretty statling. It turns out that primitive counting is based in our parietal lobes and is involved with our spatial sense, something that we share with a number of other species, and, of course, infants. Roughly speaking, what sets us apart is our use of language to extend and make precise the basic abilities Googling can give you a quick sense of his work.

  3. At minimum, we can say that what we know about bees and bee-dom continues to expand. Bees are fascinating and complex beings that have been sorely underestimated in the past.

    Brand new research on learning and memory in bees – especially newly emerged bees whose brain structures are still developing – is yet another example of how much more there is to know:

    Evidence for associative learning in newly emerged honey bees (Apis mellifera). Behrends A, Scheiner R. Anim Cogn. 2008 Sep 13. [Epub ahead of print]

  4. DD: many thanks for the reference! And let me remind readers that your blog is well worth the visit. I’m going to check out the rats and cat post.

  5. What are the landmarks they used on the study? and where they random positioned or in the same sequence everytime?

    this is an interesting study, where can i find it?

  6. It’s in the journal, Animal Cognition. The full reference is in the post. There was a lot of variation used, including different landmarks and reward positioned at different points in the sequence.

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