Can Bees Count?


From the annals of clever research designs:

A wonderful study was published last week in Science by Scarlett Howard, Adrian Dyer, and their colleagues at RMIT University in Melbourne. Here’s what they wanted to know:

Do bees understand zero?

Title of this post aside, it’s actually already been demonstrated that honey bees can count. But, understanding zero as a mathematical construct is something much bigger. From the NYTimes summary:

This is a big leap. Some past civilizations had trouble with the idea of zero. And the only nonhuman animals so far to pass the kind of test bees did are primates and one bird. Not one species, one bird, the famed African gray parrot, Alex.

The problem is that bees make terrible interview subjects, and aren’t big on math class either. So here’s what the researchers did. They placed small white squares, each of which had 1-4 black shapes printed on it, on a wall. Each had a small landing platform. Bees were then released into the enclosure, and some rewarded for landing on squares with more shapes, others for landing on squares with fewer.

Once the bees were trained, the researchers introduced a blank card (zero shapes). And with a drumroll: bees who had been trained to seek fewer shapes landed on it, while bees trained to seek more shapes avoided it.

What this shows is that bees understand that zero is a mathematical construct, a number lower than one that is part of a sequence of numbers. Moreover, the bees did even better when the zero card was paired with a high number (e.g., four or five) vs. a lower one (e.g., one or two). What this suggests is that bees understood numerical distance – that is, one is bigger than zero, but five is much bigger than zero.

Moreover, the bees were even able to distinguish between two unfamiliar numbers. In a final experiment, the researchers trained bees using cards with 2-5 black shapes, and then presented them with two brand new cards at the same time: one with one black shape, and one with zero. Again, bees that had been trained to seek fewer shapes preferred zero to one – meaning that they could carry their training into a completely new setting and order two novel numbers.

This degree of mathematical ability has actually never been observed in insects, and actually places bees on a level with “animals such as the African grey parrot, nonhuman primates, and even preschool children.”


Killing Creativity...Or Not

If you've been with us for more than a few posts, you'll know that one of the main themes of this blog is that creativity is a learned skill (or an unlearned skill, according to Picasso). Spreading this gospel and encouraging creative thinking is a goal that I share with countless designers, academics, and self-help gurus. Unsurprisingly, though, most of our work focuses on easily digested morsels and well-packaged exercises: brainstormingasking questionsbreaking routines, finding the right environmentBut what if effectively teaching creativity requires stepping back a bit farther? If you were going to design an educational system that encouraged creative problem solving, for example, what would it look like? Or more to the point, what wouldn't it look like? In a deeply insightful and genuinely funny 2006 TED talk, creativity expert Ken Robinson makes a pretty persuasive argument that the system wouldn't look like the one we have now. An alien visiting earth, he supposes, would look at public education and come to the conclusion that it's one purpose is to produce university professors. They are the kids who "come out on top" in the current system, after all; who "win all the brownie points and do everything they're supposed to." As children grow, Robinson argues, we "progressively educate them from the waist up, focusing on their heads, and slightly to one side." Academic achievement, in other words, narrowly defined and strictly enforced, is the sole metric by which we determine success. It's a talk littered with memorable and inspiring quotes. Here's the one that got the loudest applause: "creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."

Read More

The Most Creative Game

Or, Why Studying Math Is The Best Thing You Can Do

In the hallway the Academy of Management conference last week I ran into a colleague who mentioned that he’s been following CRTVTY (hurray!). But he was surprised. “You’re a math guy,” he said. “What’s a math guy doing with a blog on creativity?” Well, aside from all of the research linking math to music and art, this brings up an interesting question: can math itself be a creative exercise? 

Read More