Honeybees Can Count and Order Numbers Left to Right

Scientists discovered that honeybees trained with sugar water can differentiate numbers and instinctively order them from left to right. Perhaps tellingly, the study took place during the pandemic, when many of us worked from home. We’re sure the researcher’s families appreciated them getting out of the house, even if it was to train bees and see if they can count in the backyard. The setup included a wooden wine box, pictured below. And because the lead author of the study is in France, the paper even mentions it’s from Chateaux Fontarney, in case that’s relevant.

A wooden box that serves as a scientific experiment with honeybees
M. Giurfa et al, PNAS (2022)

The scientists tested whether bees have a concept of a mental number line, which is the instinct and ability to put numbers in increasing order. They found that bees trained on specific numbers preferred higher numbers when they were to the right and lower numbers on the left. The team published their research in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We saw it thanks to ScienceNews.

Scientists have previously found that bees can count and understand the concept of zero. Other animals, like crows and primates, share these abilities. Most humans have a mental number line that goes left to right as well, though scientists are still studying the cultural effects involved. After all, at least a dozen languages flow right to left. 

A screenshot from Bee Movie
DreamWorks Animation

Bees are remarkable animals. Hives can survive weeks buried in volcanic ash. Thousands can wave their bodies in unison to ward off predators. If you prefer honeybee pop culture to honeybee science, it’s never a bad time to watch Bee Movie. And don’t forget that Rowan Atkinson recently starred in the Netflix show Man Vs. Bee.

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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