Last updated June 8, 2018 at 11:01 am
Experiment finds tiny-brained bees can grasp a concept that defeated the ancient Romans.
Experiments by Australian researchers have demonstrated that honeybees can understand the concept of zero – something that eludes humans for the first year or two of life.
In a paper published in the journal Science, scientists from RMIT University in Melbourne demonstrate that honeybees can be trained to associate reward with choosing the smallest of two number sets on offer.
The idea that bees can in some form count is astounding enough, but the researchers, led by Adrian Dyer, then demonstrate that they can also recognise an empty set – zero – the first time they see it, and know that it is less than any other sets offered.
Bees beat children
“Zero is a difficult concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn’t come easily – it takes children a few years to learn,” Dyer says.
“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.”
To make their findings, the researchers used sugar solutions to train honeybees (from the genus Apis) to identify the lowest number of elements when confronted with a choice. For instance, it they were presented with two images containing three and four elements respectively, then three was the one that contained the reward.
If, however, the image containing three elements was paired with one containing two, then the latter was the prime target.
At no stage during the early training period were the bees exposed to an empty set. Once the bees were accustomed to the reward system, however, researcher Scarlett Howard began to periodically include one among the choices.
The bees chose it every time, indicating they somehow understood that “nothing” is a lesser value that “something”.
Advanced maths skill
The concept of zero is by no means universally grasped even among humanity. It was not part of the mindset of ancient Romans, for instance, whose numbering system carried no symbol for it.
Nevertheless, it was long considered a concept exclusive to, if not ubiquitously adopted by, our own species. In recent decades, however, scientists have been disabused of the idea, with experiments showing that a range of other species, such as African Grey parrots and Japanese macaques, can grasp the idea.
The finding that bees can do the same thing throws up many questions. Zero is a complicated thing to grasp. Humans have enough difficulty, and they have brains containing 86,000 million neurons. Honeybee brains contain just one million.
“This is a tricky neuroscience problem,” says Dyer. “It is relatively easy for neurons to respond to stimuli such as light or the presence of an object but how do we, or even an insect, understand what nothing is?”
Finding the answer, he adds, may well lead to interesting developments in a seemingly unrelated field of research.
“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,” he muses.
“If bees can perceive zero with a brain of less than a million neurons, it suggests there are simple efficient ways to teach AI new tricks.”