Bee Smarts: The Concept of Zero
There are some concepts that seem simple, but if we really think about them, are actually incredibly abstract. These concepts can be difficult for humans to understand, let alone animals. One of these ideas is the quantity, zero. You see, to understand zero we have to understand the difference between absence and presence; although zero might just be seen as a numeral in a string of other numerals, it is different to other numbers, as it can’t be counted by something that exists. Instead, it needs to be counted by observing that nothing exists. When you think of it, zero is not that simple at all!
Researchers Scarlett Howard (RMIT), Adrian Dyer (RMIT) and Aurore Avarguès-Weber (University of Toulouse) conducted a study in 2018 to find our whether or not bees could understand the value of zero. They explained that in order to acknowledge this as a number of sorts, there were levels to completely understand what zero actually meant. Stage one entails understanding that zero is an absence of things. Stage two is being able to compare “nothing” to “something”. Stage three involves seeing zero as a numerical value on the low end of the scale. Finally, stage four entailed being able to make calculations using the symbolic numeral.
These researchers conducted a test where bees learnt a series of rules and received a reward (of sucrose) if they could choose a number “less than” something else. The number scale was between 1 and 6. The bee was presented things on two platforms and they had to choose the lesser value; once the bee reached an accuracy of 80% for choosing and landing on the lowest number, they were presented with an empty platform, representing zero. The trained bees applied the “less than rule” and landed on the empty platform rather than one containing elements.
This fantastic research into bee cognition presented on The Conversation shows bees join the ranks with rhesus and vervet monkeys, a single chimpanzee and one African grey parrot! But this was the first instance where an insect showed such a sophisticated level of cognitive number processing. Just another story that show how brainy the honey bee truly is.