I have never felt particularly concerned about the bees, outside of my understanding that they are dying at alarming rates and that this threatens not only our national economy but also our very survival as a species. In terms of their potential to Do Harm — to sow chaos in a chill picnic situation when they come zooming in with their angry, vengeful stingers, for example — I have not tended to pay the bees much mind, because generally speaking, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you, and as far as I know, I am not allergic. But having just read an unsettling report, I find my trust, my good-faith assumptions, rapidly eroding. The bees have been up to much more insidious activity than I ever dared to imagine, furnishing further evidence that we face the end of days.
The bees have been doing math. The bees know too much.
A group of scientists at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia — suspicious of the hive mind, probably — decided to see just how much bees could do with their “miniature brains,” if compelled. Turns out, honeybees can be trained to do a sort of synesthesia-type arithmetic, using blue cues to signal addition and yellow cues to signal subtraction.
In a study published this week in Science Advances, researchers deployed a reward-punishment system involving sugar-water treats (bees’ favorite) and quinine, corralling 14 honeybees into a maze. First, the bees encountered a sample set that presented a number of blue or yellow shapes. Then, they flew into a “decision chamber,” where they chose between two more shape sets. If the sample dealt in blue shapes, they needed to pick the set featuring one more shape than the original; if the sample dealt in yellow shapes, the correct choice would be the set with one less shape in it. Eventually, the bees could solve this puzzle with 63 to 72 percent accuracy.
The math is basic and yet I took a full ten minutes to crack the code, because my neurons all shut down at “sample set.” That should tell you something about my mathematical facility, but also about the bees’ brains: Not only are they agile mathematic minds, they are also creative thinkers, a dangerous combination. But that’s not all! Pumping air into the anxiety balloon inflating in my chest, the Cut’s Allison Davis has just informed me that bees eat meat, and although she did not specify their preferred variety, I will assume people-meat. (I have since learned that “meat bees” actually means yellow jacket wasps, but my internal alert is stuck on high.)
Anyway, the bees are up to something and I don’t like it. Do we humans deserve whatever misery they rain down upon us? Almost certainly. Am I ready for it? Absolutely not. I had been focusing my energies on octopi, heretofore the most likely of our future animal overlords. I bet that’s exactly what the bees wanted.