Honeybees Understand the Concept of 'Zero'

Desiree Burns
June 9, 2018

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.

"Zero is a hard concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily - it takes children a few years to learn", Adrian Dyer, a co-author of the new study and a researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said in a statement.

The researchers set up two cards that each had a set of symbols on them, like triangles or circles. Humans can understand it, but humans' brains have 100 billion neurons. We understand it to be the numerical representation for nothing.

Very few animals understand the concept of zero.

The bees were trained to choose an image with the lowest number of elements in order to receive a reward of sugar solution.

Considering zero is important in math, binary code and modern technology, the study could also result in bees - and their tiny, clever brains - influencing how scientists design robotics and artificial intelligence.

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The trained bees were then shown a card that was empty versus one that had symbols on it.

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. With the right training and testing, it might be possible to prove if other animals have the same intellect as the bees.

"But what is zero, how do we represent this for so many complex object classes to make decisions in complex environments?"

"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", Dyer told Science Daily on Thursday.

The researchers also tried control experiments to rule out that bees were simply attracted to blank cards. Previous research indicated that bees can count some numbers.

"Large brains are thus not necessary to play with numbers".

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