Nav: Home

Bees can count with just four nerve cells in their brains

December 21, 2018

Bees can solve seemingly clever counting tasks with very small numbers of nerve cells in their brains, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London.

In order to understand how bees count, the researchers simulated a very simple miniature 'brain' on a computer with just four nerve cells - far fewer than a real bee has.

The '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.

In this study, published in the journal iScience, the researchers propose that this clever behaviour makes the complex task of counting much easier, allowing bees to display impressive cognitive abilities with minimal brainpower.

Previous studies have shown 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'.

They 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.

This finding demonstrates that the intelligence of bees, and potentially other animals, can be mediated by very small nerve cells numbers, as long as these are wired together in the right way.

The study could also have implications for artificial intelligence because efficient autonomous robots will need to rely on robust, computationally inexpensive algorithms, and could benefit from employing insect-inspired scanning behaviours.

Lead author Dr Vera Vasas, from Queen Mary University of London, said: "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. 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.

"Careful examination of the actual inspection strategies used by animals might reveal that they often employ active scanning behaviours as shortcuts to simplify complex visual pattern discrimination tasks. 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."

Brain size matters a lot when it comes to bees. They have only one million nerve cells in total, so they have precious little brainpower, and must implement very efficient computational algorithms to solve tasks. In comparison, humans have 86 billion nerve cells which are responsible for receiving information and sending commands.

To model the input to the brain, the authors analysed the point of view of a bee as it flies close to the countable objects and inspects them one-by-one.

The results showed the simulated brain was able to make reliable estimates on the number of items on display when provided with the actual visual input that the bee is receiving while carrying out the task.

Professor Lars Chittka, also from Queen Mary University of London and leader of the team in which the study was performed, added: "These findings add to the growing body of work showing that seemingly intelligent behaviour does not require large brains, but can be underpinned with small neural circuits that can easily be accommodated into the microcomputer that is the insect brain".
-end-


Queen Mary University of London

Related Nerve Cells Articles:

Unique fingerprint: What makes nerve cells unmistakable?
Protein variations that result from the process of alternative splicing control the identity and function of nerve cells in the brain.
Ragweed compounds could protect nerve cells from Alzheimer's
As spring arrives in the northern hemisphere, many people are cursing ragweed, a primary culprit in seasonal allergies.
Fooling nerve cells into acting normal
In a new study, scientists at the University of Missouri have discovered that a neuron's own electrical signal, or voltage, can indicate whether the neuron is functioning normally.
How nerve cells control misfolded proteins
Researchers have identified a protein complex that marks misfolded proteins, stops them from interacting with other proteins in the cell and directs them towards disposal.
The development of brain stem cells into new nerve cells and why this can lead to cancer
Stem cells are true Jacks-of-all-trades of our bodies, as they can turn into the many different cell types of all organs.
Research confirms nerve cells made from skin cells are a valid lab model for studying disease
Researchers from the Salk Institute, along with collaborators at Stanford University and Baylor College of Medicine, have shown that cells from mice that have been induced to grow into nerve cells using a previously published method have molecular signatures matching neurons that developed naturally in the brain.
Bees can count with just four nerve cells in their brains
Bees can solve seemingly clever counting tasks with very small numbers of nerve cells in their brains, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London.
Nerve cells in the human brain can 'count'
How do we know if we're looking at three apples or four?
How rabies virus moves through nerve cells, and how it might be stopped
Researchers found that the rabies virus travels through neurons differently than other neuron-invading viruses, and that its journey can be stopped by a drug commonly used to treat amoebic dysentery.
Direct conversion of non-neuronal cells into nerve cells
Researchers of the Mainz University Medical Center discovered that on the way to becoming neurons pericytes need to go through a neural stem cell-like state.
More Nerve Cells News and Nerve Cells Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.