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Bees can count using only four brain cells

Dec. 21 (UPI) — New research reveals how bees count using minimal brain power.

To better understand bees’ mathematic abilities, scientists designed a simple brain model on the computer, featuring just four nerve cells. Simulations showed the simple brain was capable of counting small quantities by closely studying one item at a time.

Previous studies suggest bees count the same way. Meanwhile, humans look at the whole group of items and count them together.

In lab experiments, bees can count upwards of five and can be trained to select the smaller or larger of two values. Bees can even choose the value of zero, when trained to select the lesser of two quantities.

The latest research suggests bees don’t need to understand complex math to achieve these feats of quantitative comparison. By conducting intimate flybys of one item at a time, they can make comparisons using minimal brain power.

“Our model shows that even though counting is generally thought to require high intelligence and large brains, it can be easily done with the smallest of nerve cell circuits connected in the right manner,” Vera Vasas, a researcher at Queen Mary University of London, said in a news release. “We suggest that using specific flight movements to scan targets, rather than numerical concepts, explains the bees’ ability to count.”

Scientists think their findings — published in the journal iScience — prove animal intelligence doesn’t always have to rely on a larger number of neurons. Instead, a small number of nerve cells simply need to be arranged in the right way.

An improved understanding of the intelligence of insects could be used to design more efficient artificial intelligence algorithms.

“Careful examination of the actual inspection strategies used by animals might reveal that they often employ active scanning behaviors as shortcuts to simplify complex visual pattern discrimination tasks,” Vasas said. “Hopefully, our work will inspire others to look more closely not just at what cognitive tasks animals can solve, but also at how they are solving them.”

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