Bees Are Surprisingly Smart—See Why It Matters In Your Garden

A new study finds that bees can do semi-complex math.

It’s not necessarily simple to rate animal intelligence, but honey bees have some mental abilities that few other animals—not even chimps or gorillas—have. Bees need that intelligence to survive, and part of their survival is pollination. As it gets closer to springtime and gardening time (which, by the way, we’re anxiously awaiting), here are some tips to keep bees smart.

Bees are capable of performing mental acrobatics, especially using symbols, like few other non-human animals. Take their “waggle dance,” for instance. A bee's waggle dance is a carefully choreographed series of movements a bee that has recently returned from the field uses to show other bees where and how good a new nectar source is. The waggle dance is purely symbolic: the bee uses angles, timing, and shapes to indicate complex information to other bees. It’s closer to a written language than, say, pointing at an object.


New research indicates that bees can also apply their understanding of symbols to numbers. Previous studies had shown that bees can count to four comfortably, but this new study, led by Australian researchers, tried to get the bees to comprehend symbols. In this case, they wanted the bees to understand that a color could indicate addition or subtraction—purely symbolic stuff.

The basics of the study: a Y-shaped course was set up. At the bottom of the Y, where the bees started, the bee would see either yellow or blue shapes; let’s say, two shapes, for this example. Through trial and error, the bee needed to figure out that if the shapes were yellow, they’d need to subtract from the number of shapes they saw at the beginning. If blue, they’d need to add one. So if the bee saw two blue shapes at the beginning, and then the two options were one blue shape or three blue shapes, the bee would have to pick the latter.

But then the researchers would change the initial number of those shapes at the beginning of the course, leaving the bees to figure out the pattern: blue means go to the option with more shapes, yellow means go to the option with fewer. To associate addition and subtraction with colors is pretty advanced stuff; very, very few animals have come even close to this level of sophistication, and certainly not, say, a dog or cat.

Bees need their amazing, wondrous intelligence because their lives are very complex. They have to travel long distances, analyze food sources, communicate their findings, maintain a society. If bees were to lose some of their intelligence, they wouldn’t survive long.

That’s not just guesswork. Pesticides, including perfectly legal amounts of brands you could find at garden centers, have been found to severely lower honey bee intelligence—and, slowly, cause them to die. And we do, obviously, need honey bees, both—imported European bees and native American bees—around as a fundamental part of the ecosystem.

Luckily, there are things you can do to save the bees. When you go to plant your garden, avoid all of the common products on this list; they all contain neonicotinoids, a variety of chemical compound known to harm bee intelligence. If you’re concerned about pests—and we all are, really—there are some other products that won’t harm bees. Try neem oil, which you can find at most hardware stores; it’ll repel pests, but no research indicates that it’s dangerous to bees.

Why not help bees out, while you're at it? A wildflower garden not only looks spectacular but can provide a valuable food source for local bees.

It’s important, when gardening, to care for our bees. After all, they’ll notice.