Honeybees understand abstract concept of zero

Henrietta Strickland
June 10, 2018

Without any prior training, the bees flew more often to the empty card - thereby demonstrating that they understood that "zero" was a number less than the others, according to the study published Thursday (June 7) in the journal Science.

According to Dyer, bees have fewer than 1 million neurons compared with the human brain which has around 86 billion neurons. While it took human beings centuries to come up with the concept, bees knew all along about the number zero. For long, it was believed that humans were the only ones to get the concept, but the recent work has changed the notion.

"Zero is a hard concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily - it takes children a few years to learn", Adrian Dyer, a co-author of the new study and a researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said in a statement.

"What we haven't known-until now-is whether insects can also understand zero", Dyer said.

For the study, the researchers used pairs of black-and-white sheets in order to train the honey bees to understand the "less than" and "greater than" concepts.

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. For instance, the bees were encouraged to choose three elements when presented with three or four. And, when the surprise test, with a completely blank image or "empty set", was conducted for the first time, the bees already knew that it was at the lower end in a sequence of elements and chose to fly toward it.

'This is a tricky neuroscience problem, ' Dyer said.

Neurons can easily respond to light and other stimuli, but the ability to represent nothing as zero indicates that some animals and insects may have evolved special neural mechanisms to perform the task. The bees were more accurate when zero was presented with a more distant number choice: a trait also seen in humans.

"If bees can perceive zero with a brain of less than a million neurons, it suggests there are simple efficient ways to teach artificial intelligence new tricks", said Mr. Dyer.

The researchers also tried control experiments to rule out that bees were simply attracted to blank cards.

Study co-author, Dr Aurore Avarguès-Weber from the University of Toulouse in France, said: "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.

Bees may be far more clever than you imagine: they can grasp the concept of zero, according to a study published on Thursday in the global journal Science.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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