According to the study, the discovery helps scientists understand the relationship between brain size and brain power.
Given that honeybees and humans are separated by more than 400 million years of evolution, "our findings suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be more accessible to nonhuman animals than previously suspected," said study co-author Adrian Dyer of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.
In the study, researchers created an experiment using mazes to test whether bees could perform arithmetic operations like addition and subtraction. The insects came up with the correct answers 63 percent to 72 percent of the time, which is better than random chance.
Though the results came from just 14 bees, researchers say the advance is exciting, according to a summary of the findings in Science magazine. "If a brain about 20,000 times smaller than ours can perform arithmetic using symbols, it could pave the way to novel approaches in artificial intelligence and machine learning," Science's Alex Fox wrote.
Historically, the ability to do basic math has been vital for human societies to flourish, according to study lead author Scarlett R. Howard, a PhD researcher at RMIT. In a statement, she noted that Egyptians and Babylonians used arithmetic around 2000 B.C.
Previous studies have shown some primates, birds and even spiders can add and/or subtract. The new research adds bees to that list.