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Bees make some very smart decisions. Their brains are now a model for AI

Bees in a manmade hive as photographed from above.
Cincinnati Civic Garden Center
The Civic Garden Center in Avondale does a beehive check and sees the queen bee near the center toward the bottom.

The brain of a honeybee has just one million neurons. That's 85,999,000 less than a human brain, making it perfect for researchers to study such "simple" circuitry.

Bees make quick and accurate decisions, say researchers from the University of Sheffield in the UK, and algorithms from the bees' thinking can improve artificial intelligence.

"Bees are amazingly smart for having such small brains," says Professor James Marshall, Sheffield researcher and founder of Opteran. He says bees are especially good at long distance navigation.

"They can fly about seven miles from the nest, come back to the hive and even tell nest mates where to go, where they’ve just found a bunch of flowers, for example."

And honeybees do as many as 300 jobs in a lifetime, including nurse brood, clear out dead bees and fill the cells up with honey in the hive — all of which are kind of complicated.

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Marshall, his colleagues, and researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, fixated on that and developed algorithms for each bee behavior scientists studied.

What bees can do

Marshall and his team trained 20 bees to recognize five different colored artificial flowers. "Blue flowers always contained sugar syrup; green flowers always contained tonic water with a bitter taste that bees dislike; and the remaining colors sometimes had glucose."

After the bees learned the taste, they were introduced to a garden of fake flowers that only had distilled water. Scientists timed how long it took them to decide. On average it was just over a half a second.

Marshall says there's a lot of nuances in this decision making, comparable to humans. To translate it into useable information, he reconstructed the brain circuits of bees, developed algorithms for specific bee behaviors, then reverse-engineered it to reproduce it to run on silicon computer chips to control robots.

He sees the technology being used in drones, warehouse robots, robot arms and driverless cars.

The finger is pointing to a bee being born.
Civic Garden Center
The finger is pointing to a bee being born.

Inside Avondale's Hauck Botanic Gardens, with a beehive eight drawers high, Civic Garden Center Manager Stephanie Fransen says these researchers are on the right track.

"With the AI, that makes sense that they're trying to predict things so quickly and with bees they just seem to know what they need to do almost immediately, regardless of what's going on," she says.

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Fransen is a bee enthusiast, loving the things she sees. "It's like bee magic, almost. The queen knows when to make new cells and when to swarm or go somewhere else, if the hive is susceptible about knowing about the queen and her health, and if a new one needs to be introduced."

Look for the first consumer products using the bee brain to be in the U.S. market next year.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.