It turns out human beings are not the only species that understand what it means when the cupboards are bare. In this latest scientific study researchers discovered that bees also get the abstract concept of “zero”.
Bees understand the concept of zero
Scientists have discovered honeybees can understand the concept of zero, putting them in an elite club of clever animals that can grasp the abstract mathematical notion of nothing.
In research published in the journal Science, Australian and French researchers tested whether honey bees can rank numerical quantities and understand that zero belongs at the lower end of a sequence of numbers.
“Zero is a difficult concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn’t come easily — it takes children a few years to learn. We’ve long believed only humans had the intelligence to get the concept, but recent research has shown monkeys and birds have the brains for it as well.
What we haven’t known — until now — is whether insects can also understand zero.”
-Dr. Adrian Dyer, Associate Professor, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia
As well as being a critical pollinator, the honeybee is an exceptional model species for investigating insect cognition, with previous research showing they can learn intricate skills from other bees and even understand abstract concepts like sameness and difference.
But bee brains have fewer than 1 million neurons — compared with the 86,000 million neurons of a human brain — and little was known about how insect brains would cope with being tested on such an important numeric skill.
RMIT PhD researcher Scarlett Howard set out to test the honeybee on its understanding, marking individual honeybees for easy identification and luring them to a specially-designed testing apparatus.
The bees were trained to choose an image with the lowest number of elements in order to receive a reward of sugar solution.
For example, the bees learned to choose three elements when presented with three vs. four; or two elements when presented with two vs. three.
Researchers periodically tested the bees with an image that contained no elements versus an image that had one or more, the bees understood that the set of zero was the lower number — despite never having been exposed to an “empty set.”
“If bees can learn such a seemingly advanced maths skill that we don’t even find in some ancient human cultures, perhaps this opens the door to considering the mechanism that allows animals and ourselves to understand the concept of nothing.”
“The discovery that bees can show such elaborated understanding of numbers was really surprising given their tiny brain. Large brains are thus not necessary to play with numbers. This capacity is therefore probably shared by many other animals.”
-Dr. Aurore Avarguès-Weber, study co-author, University of Toulouse in France
Journal Reference: Scarlett Howard, Adrian Dyer, Aurore Avarguès-Weber et al. Numerical ordering of zero in honeybees. Science, 2018 DOI: 10.1126/science.aar4975