Bees Can Solve Counting Tasks with Just Four Neurons, New Study Shows

Bees can count up to four or five items, can choose the smaller or the larger number from a group and even choose ‘zero’ against other numbers when trained to choose ‘less.’ According to a new study, published in the journal iScience, bees might have achieved this not by understanding numerical concepts, but by using specific flight movements to closely inspect items which then shape their visual input and simplifies the task to the point where it requires minimal brainpower. The study demonstrates that the intelligence of bees, and potentially other animals, can be mediated by very small neuron numbers, as long as these are wired together in the right way.

Bees can solve seemingly clever counting tasks with very small numbers of neurons in their brains. Image credit: PollyDot.

Brain size matters a lot when it comes to bees.

They have only one million neurons in total, so they have precious little brainpower, and must implement very efficient computational algorithms to solve tasks.

In comparison, humans have 86 billion neurons which are responsible for receiving information and sending commands.

In order to understand how bees count, Dr. Vera Vasas from the Queen Mary University of London and Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin’s Dr. Lars Chittka simulated a very simple miniature ‘brain’ on a computer with just four neurons — far fewer than a real bee has.

The simulated brain could easily count small quantities of items when inspecting one item closely and then inspecting the next item closely and so on, which is the same way bees count. This differs from humans who glance at all the items and count them together.

The researchers propose that this clever behavior makes the complex task of counting much easier, allowing bees to display impressive cognitive abilities with minimal brainpower.

“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,” Dr. Vasas said.

“We suggest that using specific flight movements to scan targets, rather than numerical concepts, explains the bees’ ability to count.”

“This scanning streamlines the visual input and means a task like counting requires little brainpower.”


Vera Vasas & Lars Chittka. Insect-inspired sequential inspection strategy enables an artificial network of four neurons to estimate numerosity. iScience, published online December 14, 2018; doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2018.12.009