Babies May Not Get the Concept of 'Zero,' but Bees Do

Researchers amazed that honeybees can grasp the abstract construct of 'nothing'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 8, 2018 12:46 PM CDT
Babies May Not Get the Concept of 'Zero,' but Bees Do
This Jan. 28, 2014, file photo shows a hive of honeybees on display in Essex Junction, Vt.   (AP Photo/Andy Duback, File)

Dolphins, monkeys, birds, and homo sapiens have a shared understanding of a quite difficult concept, and now honeybees are joining the party. Per a release, that concept is "zero," an abstract mathematical construct that scientists say stumps humans until at least preschool, but which they now note is apparently grasped by these small-brained insects. Australian and French researchers published their findings in the journal Science, noting that their flying subjects were able to prioritize numerical quantities using a reward system, and that the results could have implications for artificial intelligence down the road. Per LiveScience, the scientists used a rotating set of two cards with symbols on them, with one card having a higher number of symbols than the other. The bees were given a sugar solution if they picked the card with the lower number.

Not only did the bees fly more often to the cards with the least number of symbols on them, they also, when presented with a card that had nothing on it and a card with symbols, flew more often to the blank card. Interestingly, they also flew more often to the zero card when the opposing card had a higher number of symbols—meaning it seemed easier for them to know zero's low place in the hierarchy if the opposing number was a high one. Scientists are mostly amazed because a human brain boasts 86 million neurons; a bee brain gets by with one million. "Large brains are thus not necessary to play with numbers," study co-author Aurore Avargues-Weber says in the release. Not much brain power being needed to get "nothing" also suggests "there are simple, efficient ways to teach AI new tricks," study co-author Adrian Dyer adds. (There's a US honeybee crisis, but it seems to be getting better.)

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