Tag: honeybees

Honey Bees Can Understand Nothing

Zero, zilch, nothing, is a pretty hard concept to understand. Children generally can’t grasp it until kindergarten. And it’s a concept that may not be innate but rather learned through culture and education.

Throughout human history, civilizations have had varying representations for it. Yet our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, can understand it.

And now researchers in Australia writing in the journal Science say the humble honey bee can be taught to understand that zero is less than one.

The result is kind of astounding, considering how tiny bee brains are. Humans have around 100 billion neurons. The bee brain? Fewer than 1 million.

The findings suggest that the ability to fathom zero may be more widespread than previously thought in the animal kingdom — something that evolved long ago and in more branches of life.




It’s also possible that in deconstructing how the bees compute numbers, we could make better, more efficient computers one day.

Our computers are electricity-guzzling machines. The bee, however, “is doing fairly high-level cognitive tasks with a tiny drop of nectar,” says Adrian Dyer, a Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology researcher and co-author on the study.

Their brains are probably processing information in a very clever [i.e., efficient] way.”

But before we can deconstruct the bee brain, we need to know that it can do the complex math in the first place.

How to teach a bee the concept of zero

Bees are fantastic learners. They spend hours foraging for nectar in among flowers, can remember where the juiciest flowers are, and even have a form of communication to inform their hive mates of where food is to be found.

Researchers train bees like they train many animals: with food. “You have a drop of sucrose associated with a color or a shape, and they will learn to reliably go back to” that color or shape, Dyer explains.

With this simple process, you can start teaching bees rules. In this case, the researchers wanted to teach 10 bees the basic rules of arithmetic.

So they put out a series of sheets of paper that had differing numbers of objects printed on them. Using sugar as a reward, the researchers taught the bees to always fly to the sheet that had the fewest objects printed on it.

Once the bees learned this rule, they could reliably figure out that two shapes are less than four shapes, that one shape is smaller than three. And they’d keep doing this even when a sugary reward was not waiting for them.

And then came the challenge: What happens when a sheet with no objects at all was presented to the bees? Would they understand that a blank sheet — which represented the concept of zero in this experiment — was less than three, less than one?

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Scientists Finally Figure Out How Bees Fly

bees

Proponents of intelligent design, which holds that a supreme being rather than evolution is responsible for life’s complexities, have long criticized science for not being able to explain some natural phenomena, such as how bees fly.

Now scientists have put this perplexing mystery to rest.

Using a combination of high-speed digital photography and a robotic model of a bee wing, the researchers figured out the flight mechanisms of honeybees.




“For many years, people tried to understand animal flight using the aerodynamics of airplanes and helicopters,” said Douglas Altshuler, a researcher at California Institute of Technology.

“In the last 10 years, flight biologists have gained a remarkable amount of understanding by shifting to experiments with robots that are capable of flapping wings with the same freedom as the animals.”

Turns out bee flight mechanisms are more exotic than thought.

“The honeybees have a rapid wing beat,” Altshuler said. “In contrast to the fruit fly that has one eightieth the body size and flaps its wings 200 times each second, the much larger honeybee flaps its wings 230 times every second.”

 

bees

This was a surprise because as insects get smaller, their aerodynamic performance decreases and to compensate, they tend to flap their wings faster.

“And this was just for hovering,” Altshuler said of the bees. “They also have to transfer pollen and nectar and carry large loads, sometimes as much as their body mass, for the rest of the colony.”

In order to understand how bees carry such heavy cargo, the researchers forced the bees to fly in a small chamber filled with a mixture of oxygen and helium that is less dense than regular air.

bees

This required the bees to work harder to stay aloft and gave the scientists a chance to observe their compensation mechanisms for the additional toil.

The bees made up for the extra work by stretching out their wing stroke amplitude but did not adjust wingbeat frequency.

The work, supervised by Caltech’s Michael Dickinson, was reported last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists said the findings could lead to a model for designing aircraft that could hover in place and carry loads for many purposes such as diaster surveillance after earthquakes and tsunamis.

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They are also pleased that a simple thing like bee flight can no longer be used as an example of science failing to explain a common phenomenon.

Proponents of intelligent design, or ID, have tried in recent years to promote the idea of a supreme being by discounting science because it can’t explain everything in nature.

“People in the ID community have said that we don’t even know how bees fly,” Altshuler said.

“We were finally able to put this one to rest. We do have the tools to understand bee flight and we can use science to understand the world around us.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist