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Bees Are Even Smarter Than We Thought

The human prefrontal cortex is a glorious thing: it tells us where to go and what to do, while still retaining the flexibility to tell us why it was a bad idea to go there and do that after we’ve gone and done it.

But bee brains are different. And by different, we mean a lot smaller.

University of Illinois biologist Gene Robinson, who has spent much of his career looking at the brains and genes and social insects, has long argued that bees—like humans—demonstrate social structures that provide for agriculture, warfare, and symbolic language:

But that’s just the power of the hive mind, right? We don’t expect bees to individually possess much intelligence. Except that they do; one 2010 study found that they can calculate the most efficient route between two points faster than some computers. And now, a more recent study has found evidence that they are able to perform higher-order cognition, something you wouldn’t expect from a brain that has about 1/100,000th as many neurons (950,000 versus our 100 billion) as ours.

How do they do this? We don’t quite know yet. There has been very little study of the neuroscience of insects—which, given how much insect brains can potentially tell us about the structure of our own, is something that many scientists working in the field hope to change.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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