Honeybees understand the concept of zero

But bee brains have fewer than 1 million neurons - compared with the 86,000 million neurons of a human brain - and little was known about how insect brains would cope with being tested on such an important numeric skill. Parrots and monkeys understand the concept of zero, and now bees have joined the club, too. For long, it was believed that humans were the only ones to get the concept, but the recent work has changed the notion.

Perhaps these findings will shed light into the brain mechanism behind what allows us to understand the concept of "nothing", Adrian Dyer, a researcher at the RMIT University and senior author of the study, said in the RMIT statement.

Previous research on honey bees has revealed that the pollinators can learn complex skills from their peers and even grasp abstract concepts such as same/different and above/below that rely on relationships between objects.

RMIT PhD researcher Scarlett Howard set out to test the honeybee on its understanding, marking individual honeybees for easy identification and luring them to a specially-designed testing apparatus.

In the new study published on Thursday, scientists trained bees to choose images with the fewest elements. They lured a few honeybees, which are seen as a flawless model for insect cognition, into the apparatus and trained them to choose the image that had the lowest number of elements. The bees navigated toward the image with no elements, despite never having been exposed to an "empty set", RMIT said in a press release.

"This is a tricky neuroscience problem", he said.

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"How does a brain represent nothing?"

That said, as zero forms the core of maths and binary code, the researchers think that the neural model mechanics in bees could be used in the development of robotics and machine intelligence. The bees were more accurate when zero was presented with a more distant number choice: a trait also seen in humans.

"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".

The researchers also tried control experiments to rule out that bees were simply attracted to blank cards. If the bees flew to the picture with the smaller number of shapes, they were given delicious sugar water, but if they flew toward the larger number, they were punished with bitter-tasting quinine. "This capacity is therefore probably shared by many other animals", speculated study co-author, Dr. Aurore Avarguès-Weber from the University of Toulouse in France.

The ability to grasp the concept of zero is very rare in the animal kingdom, but this new study proves that it might actually be more widespread than what was previously thought.


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