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14 September 2022

Can animals count? BBC radio finds out

Bees can recognise number patterns, not just of objects found in nature but even of random symbols.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It’s been a struggle this week to find something to listen to that isn’t about the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II or what we can expect from our new King – so if this review seems a bit random, I apologise. But when I saw CrowdScience on the BBC World Service was asking, “Can animals count?” I simply had to find out the answer. I’m sure Her Majesty, devoted as she was to her horses and corgis, would have approved.

It turns out that they very much can. The presenter, Marnie Chesterton, discovers lions who can judge if it’s wise to engage with intruders based on whether or not they’re outnumbered, and frogs who compete for mates by adding up the croaks of their rivals and then exceeding them.

This basic skill of being able to determine more and less is apparently crucial in the animal world – for food, sex and simply staying alive. “We can’t even discount the possibility that all animals can count, because if an animal doesn’t respond to your experiment, that doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” Chesterton explains, though personally I have my doubts. My cat has never figured out how many paws she has – I sense the mental arithmetic displayed by her distant cousins on the Serengeti plains is very much beyond her.

Later, we hear about a parrot named Alex whose mathematical skills sound truly astounding. But I was fascinated most by the revelation that bees can recognise number patterns, not just of objects found in nature but even of random symbols. And they do it by counting one by one, just like humans do.

It was surreal to read that the royal beekeeper had informed the Buckingham Palace bees of the Queen’s death. What do they care? They’re bees. But, after listening to CrowdScience and realising how much cognition goes on in those tiny insect brains, I’m pleased they were told. If they’re able to count, who knows what else they understand?

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[See also: How are animals adapting to climate change?]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession