For the first time ever, the humble bee with its tiny brain has been found to understand the concept of zero.
For most of us, the idea of zero may seem like a fairly easy and unchallenging thing to get our head around. But in actual fact, the ability to accept the absence of something, which is what zero is after all, as a quantity is a hard fought accomplishment. Children will often learn other numbers before understanding the concept of zero, and even then it has been shown that they can find difficulty in identifying whether or not zero is higher or lower than one.
So it is little wonder that in the animal world, very few species are known to understand the concept of zero. Chimpanzees and some monkeys can be trained to comprehend the concept, but apart from these, very few animals are able to do it, and until now it wasn’t thought that any insect at all was capable of mastering the notion.
But scientists from the RMIT University in Melbourne have presented their research at the current Behaviour 2017 meeting in Portugal, reporting that they have been able to demonstrate that bees treat zero just like another number.
To start with, the researchers set up two platforms with varying numbers of shapes on them. They then trained bees to associate the platform with the fewest number of shapes on it with a sweet reward, and the platform with the most number a horrible taste. After being certain the bees were responding to the number of shapes and nothing else, the researchers then tested the insects by offering them one platform with two or three shapes, and another with zero shapes. The insects most frequently chose the latter.
Finally, the researchers then trained the bees to decide whether or not to land on a platform with zero objects, one object, or six objects. They found that once again, most of the time the insects could correctly identify the platform with nothing on it, but took more time over the decision if they were having to choose between a platform that had nothing and another that had just one object.
The fact that it took the bees longer to decide which one was zero when the numbers were numerically closer, suggests that the insects do indeed see the absence of objects as a number, the authors argue.
This would imply that the insects’ ability to count is similar to that of humans and some primates, and is strangely advanced for the animal world, not just for insects. The reason why bees should have such highly developed cognitive capability in the realm of mathematics, however, is a little tricky to deduce.
[H/T: New Scientist]