Oct 28, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Bee Positives -- Studies Find Bees Can Count, Roll Balls and Affect the Weather

For most of us, honey, candles and a really good lip balm are reasons enough to be impressed with bees. Notwithstanding the stingers, bees are probably near the top of most favorite insect lists as well. If you need more incentives to be beholden to bees, three different studies recently found three more ways the members of the genus Apidae will blow your mind. First, bees have been seen rolling wooden balls around just for the fun of it. Second, bees have been noted to count objects – ball included – from left to right, proving direction is key to this ability. Third and most impressive, bees carry an electrical charge which can affect atmospheric electricity and influence natural weather events. Forget the apes – we need to worry about bee-coming the Planet of the Bees.

What's wrong with that?

“There are lots of animals who play just for the purposes of enjoyment, but most examples come from young mammals and birds. This research provides a strong indication that insect minds are far more sophisticated than we might imagine.”

Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioral ecology at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), may be right about lots of animals playing just for the fun of it, but one would be hard pressed to name any besides humans and dogs who play with balls just for the sheer enjoyment of it. In a new study published in the journal Animal Behaviour, Chittka and a team of biological and behavioral science researchers gave bees tiny wooden beads and the insects quickly began rolling them around without training or incentives. In a tiny arena specially built for bee-ball, the researchers released 45 bees and gave them balls. They found that younger bees played more than older ones, and (no surprise here) male bees rolled the balls around for longer periods than females did. The balls were hidden behind obstacles and the bees went looking for them. The bees were placed in different colored ‘arenas’ and played with the balls no matter what hue their surroundings had. The study concluded with the researchers amazed:

“We found that ball rolling did not contribute to immediate survival strategies [and] was intrinsically rewarding.”

Moving on to something more challenging …

In the study of human development, there is a concept called the “mental number line” (MNL) where humans are presented with numbers and they consistently organize them in a line with the smallest to the left and the largest to the right. This has been found to be true even before children learn to count, although there is some debate over whether children in Arabic countries using right-to-left reading learn to count in that direction or are born doing it. We’ll leave that question to others while we ponder this one – in which direction do bees count? Yes, other studies have shown that bees can count up to five, and some primates organize numbers from right to left. Can bees do it too?

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), animal researchers and psychologists led by Martin Giurfa, a professor at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition at Paul Sabatier University in France, built a different kind of wooden arena for their bees. As they fly in, sugar water was dispensed to train them to select an image of a number of items affixed. The number of items stayed the same for each individual bee, but varied randomly across the group – between one, three or five – and in shapes: circles, squares or triangles. Once trained to fly towards their set number of items, the researchers removed the sugar water, mixed up the numbers and left some black spaces. Then they let the bees back in. The Guardian gives the results: in a surprise move, 80% of the bees who were trained to select the three items would head to the left when offered just one item on either side, and went to the right when offered five items on either side. Also, bees trained to go for number one went to the right for a number three, while bees targeting a five went left for their three. And bees trained to go for number one went to the right for a number three, while bees targeting a five went left for their three.

So, bees have a mental number line from left to right, just like most humans. Giurfa says this doesn’t help explain why not all humans count left to right. Would sugar water help?

The idea that small causes can have massive effects was named “the butterfly effect” by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz who likened it to a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world eventually causing a tornado on the other side. A staple in chaos theory, a new study using bees found that the theory is a reality – and it is tied to the new discovery that bees – along with other flying insects - carry small electrical charges.

A sign of approaching storms?

“The atmosphere hosts multiple sources of electric charge that influence critical processes such as the aggregation of droplets and the removal of dust and aerosols. This is evident in the variability of the atmospheric electric field.”

One bolt of lightning is proof that the atmosphere is electrically charged. In a study published in the journal iScience, researchers led by Ellard Hunting, lead author and a research associate at the University of Bristol, sought a link between flying bees and the massively charged atmosphere that would prove the butterfly effect. They first proved that honeybees carry electrical charges by placing electrical field monitors near a dense swarm of migrating honeybees and picking up their charge. Next, they calculated the electrical charge of dense swarms of honeybees and compared their charge to that of meteorological events like clouds and dust storms. They found that a swarm is capable of exceeding charge densities reported for electrical storms and clouds, which means it could have a sizeable impact on the atmosphere. Would it be enough to influence the weather? The research there is inconclusive. However, any budding conspiracy theorists who want to try should skip the bees and go for the insects of biblical plague fame – locusts. Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) swarms out-charge even the bees.

There you have it – bees can play, organize numbers in sequence and potentially influence the weather. Look out “Survivor” – it sounds like they can outwit, outplay and outlast humans.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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