Scientists teach brainy bees a lesson

Despite having a brain the size of a pinhead, bees can be taught to make simultaneous decisions, according to new research which suggests that machines might one day be engineered to do the same.

The joint Australian and French research involved teaching honeybees to distinguish between concepts such as left and right or up and down to reap a reward. Depending on the signage at the end of the maze, bees were either penalised with bitter tasting quinine solution or rewarded with a sweet sucrose syrup.

Study author Adrian Dyer, from RMIT, said the findings of the three-year project established the bees' learning capability.

The insects - which have brains containing just a million neurons - were then able to apply the concepts when making an on-the-spot decision as to which of the solutions on offer would probably be the sweet stuff. ''It is certainly time to reconsider what a brain is and what a brain is capable of,'' Dr Dyer said. ''A bee brain can do very complex rule-learning type tasks.''

Research team lead author Aurore Avargues-Weber, from Universite de Toulouse, trained the honeybees individually over 30 trials.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research establishes that simultaneous decision-making is not limited to the complex primate brain and that bees are able to learn multiple rules.

The bee brain - which is about 0.01 per cent the size of a human brain - contains fewer neurons than a human retina. But it is capable of complex processes such as rule learning, which is a more creative way of solving novel problems.

Dr Dyer said the findings had the potential to be applied to artificial intelligence, including machines such as drones.

''[Brains] are very plastic and they use previous experience to solve novel problems,'' he said.