Study suggests honeybees have zero knowledge

A new study published in Science has shown that honeybees are capable of understanding the concept of zero. It’s a first for invertebrates and it joins a class of animals that include dolphins, birds, primates and humans.

In the new study, researchers from Australia and France trained bees to determine the value of zero

In the new study published today in Science, researchers from Australia and France trained bees to determine the value of zero. (Boris Smokrovic/Unsplash)

Honeybees have now mastered a concept that even a preschool-aged child can't—the value of zero. In other words, they can recognize that zero means nothing.

There's been quite a lot of research to show that honeybees can count, but never if they can determine the value of zero. In the new study published today in Science, researchers from Australia and France trained bees to do just that.

This concept isn't as evident as it might seem. Preschool age kids require training to learn the idea. Researchers have demonstrated the concept of zero in dolphins, parrots and all kinds of primates, but this is a first for an invertebrate insect.

Using little sugar rewards, the researchers trained the bees to come to the counting apparatus and showed them sets of numbers. If the bees chose the lowest number, they would get the reward. The training took five or six hours, but the bees learned to correctly identify the lowest number each time, including when presented with a blank sheet.

Using little sugar rewards, the researchers trained the bees to come to the counting apparatus and showed them two sets of numbers. If the bees chose the lowest number, they would get the reward. (Scarlett Howard, Jair Garcia and Adrian Dyer)

"They chose to land predominantly on the blank sheet," said Dr. Adrian Dyer, the senior author of the study and research fellow in the Department of Physiology at Monash University in Australia. "[This] showed that they understood that this representation was less than one and, thus, they understood the concept of zero."

The bees scored about 70 to 80 per cent on their greater than or less than math tests, which is better than the average pre-schooler at the same task.

Counting plays a big part of the bees' survival as a hive

Bees are social creatures that communicate to the rest of the colony about all kinds of things with sophisticated signals using dance-like manoeuvers. These signals convey the direction and distance of possible sources of food and zero may play a role in that.

"Being able to quantify things or understanding how to count is probably high value for navigation, food management, actually a number of things, which we think humans find counting very useful for," said Dyer.

For example, the bees might tell the hive about not having any food or not seeing any flowers on the foraging run. Therefore, counting plays a big part of their survival as a hive, the same way the concept of no food, no money, or zero anything is vital to humans as a species.

Counting plays a big part of their survival as a hive, the same way the concept of no food, no money, or zero anything is vital to humans as a species. (Pixabay/Pexels)

Understanding zero is not an innate concept

There is evidence that in Roman times the idea of zero as a numerical value either wasn't realized or wasn't considered significant—for instance, there is no Roman numeral for zero. And previous research into ancient civilizations suggests that the idea of nothing as a number wasn't that obvious.

The lack of zero as a concept could be because these civilizations had other ways of showing zero that didn't require a number, or that they didn't need zero as a value, or just that it wasn't realized yet.

Today, humans need zero. It's an important concept to realize from an evolutionary perspective. So bees must need the idea of zero too, or else it would never have evolved with the level of accuracy on display in these tests.

It's not the size of the brain, but what you do with it

For a long time, the human brain—full of billions of neurons—was considered the only one capable of a more abstract value of zero, or any form of intelligence for that matter.

Then researchers proved that birds could do it (specifically, the African grey parrot), most primates and now bees, with only a million or so neurons in the brain. This growing evidence around the intelligence of other species suggests that brain size has nothing to do with it.

"It's possible that brain size is not an indication of intelligence," said Dyer. "That said and done, we have to think humans are pretty amazing at what we do. So our brain can do many, many complex things. And perhaps the size of our brain gives us the flexibility to do many multiple tasks."

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of scienceinseconds.com.

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