Like many humans, honeybees seem to prefer their numbers ordered from left to right.
Honeybees trained to recognize a specific number tend to fly left when given two side-by-side options of a smaller number and right when the options represent a larger number, a new study claims. The finding suggests that honeybees have a “mental number line” and that this association has biological roots, researchers report October 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While some scientists agree that the study makes a compelling case for a mental number line in honeybees, others argue that the new work is an oversimplification of complex human behavior.
Many humans have a mental number line that often puts smaller numbers on the left and bigger numbers on the right — if asked to organize several bunches of grapes by size, you’d likely line them up by increasing number of grapes from left to right. Whether this association is present at birth or learned later in life has long been a subject of debate.
Previous work has shown that honeybees can count, and that they even understand the concept of zero (SN: 6/7/18). “When you realize all these facts, an obvious question [is whether honeybees have] the so-called mental number line,” says Martin Giurfa, a biologist at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France. Working from home during COVID-19 lockdowns, Giurfa tested 134 honeybees (Apis mellifera) on their number-ordering abilities using a design developed with researchers who had done similar experiments with chicks and human babies (SN: 1/29/15).
First, Giurfa had to teach his bee pupils to recognize numbers. Using sugar water, he lured honeybees into a testing chamber built from a repurposed wine box. For each bee, he hung a panel on the back of the box with a certain number of symbols on it — one, three or five — and fed them the sugar water so they’d learn to associate the number with food. By varying what the symbols looked like between visits, he ensured the bees were learning the number itself and not certain shapes or arrangements.
After 30 trips to the box, it was time for a test: Giurfa removed the training panel and set up two, mirror-image panels, one on the left wall of the box and one on the right. These new panels either had the same number of symbols as the training panel, fewer symbols or more.
Which panel did the bees fly to — left or right? “It depends on your reference number,” Giurfa says. Of the bees trained on “one,” 72 percent flew to the “three” panel to the right, but of the bees trained on “five,” 73 percent went to the “three” panel to the left. “That’s exactly the concept of the mental number line,” Giurfa says. “You align numbers based on your reference.” If the test number was the same as the training number, the bees showed no preference for left or right.
These experiments “make a very compelling case” for a mental number line in honeybees, says Felicity Muth, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved with the study. “They have a number of controls that really rule out any of the alternative explanations I can think of.”
Giurfa believes these results show that mental number lines, or at least some component of them, are present across the animal kingdom. However, not everyone is convinced.
“The oversimplification of complex human concepts, such as that of ‘number line,’ must be avoided, since they severely distort the reality of the phenomena that make them possible,” says Rafael Núñez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego.
Núñez, who coauthored an article critical of the earlier chick study, thinks animal research should address why bees and chicks would have inborn mental number lines while some human groups, like those he’s studied in Papua New Guinea, don’t. Giurfa acknowledges that culture plays a role in explaining why not every adult naturally orders numbers from left to right, but feels that the proof is there for a biological underpinning (SN: 8/23/21).
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This study stops short of explaining why the brains of bees, chicks and babies have all converged on the same left-to-right number ordering but does offer a possible answer — their asymmetrical brains. All three have brains that process information differently on the left and right sides. “It might be an inherent property to these lateralized brain systems,” Giurfa says.
A shared system for organizing numbers, if truly widespread, would highlight how surprisingly similar animal minds can be to our own. Though some cognitive powers seem to be uniquely human, Giurfa thinks there is danger in dismissing the abilities of animals. “We are different from animals in some aspects,” he says, “but we are very similar in others. Denying this similarity is not what will help us understand what we are.”