The Concept of Zero and Honey Bees

For years scientists have trained many species of animals to solve puzzles, to count and even, communicate. Scientists have observed them in their natural habitat and in the lab, testing how they interact, learn and comprehend new information. One example is Koko the gorilla who learned sign language and was able to communicate back with her handler. Crows and octopus are able to solve complex puzzles and, African Grey parrots at Harvard University can identify and speak different types of objects, colors, and shapes.

Irene Pepperberg, Research Associate and Griffin the African Grey Parrot at Harvard University FAS Dept. of Psychology.

Mayan Numerical System

Among all the birds, mammals and sea creatures, the only category missing was insects -until today! In a recent study by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia,  bees were trained and studied in a lab environment. The results show how they were able to understand the concept of zero. But what is the big deal about understanding the number zero -you may ask. To start, the concept of zero wasn’t understood or incorporated into people’s daily life until much recently.

Adoption of the Hindu numerals through the Arabs by Europe.

Early theories of zero were among the Ancient Greeks and the Mayans where the concept of zero was used as a placeholder, but not used as the number we know today. It wasn’t until Ancient Indians who began developing their own system where zero was defined explicitly. Their numbers will eventually become the bases of the numbers we know today. In the 13th Century, Italian mathematician Fibonacci set the bases through their work and helped established the number zero across Europe.

The Fibonacci spiral: an approximation of the golden spiral created by drawing circular arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in the Fibonacci tiling;[4] this one uses squares of sizes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and 21.

Zero became the cornerstone or calculus, allowing a number to be broken down into smaller units approaching zero and allows us to create new numbers without the need to create new digits. Zero is the middleman between positive one (+1) and negative one (-1) and enjoys all the rights like any other number to be subtracted, added, multiplied and divided. In this age of technology, zero evolved into modern computer programing through the binary numerical system composed of only ones and zeroes. But how is this related to bees, you may ask?

Well, zero is a difficult concept to understand. To put in contrast, children will only start to grasp the concept of zero around 5 years old and will fully understand it around 6-7 years of age. In the beginning, children will understand that zero means an absence of items, like apples or cars, but when asked what number has a lesser value between 1 and 0, children usually will choose 1 (Dustin J. Merritt, Elizabeth M. Brannon, Duke University).

Zero, in its basic numerical form, notes an absence of value -because its doubtful bees will be able to understand complex calculus and the binary system, just yet -who knows. Through RMIT’s study, bees were trained to choose the lowest quantity of elements in an image in order to receive a reward -a sugar solution.

Trained to pick the lowest number out of a series of options, a honeybee chooses a blank image, revealing an understanding of the concept of zero. Credit: RMIT University

“For example, the bees learned to choose three elements when presented with three vs. four; or two elements when presented with two vs. three.

When [RMIT PhD researcher Scarlett] Howard periodically tested the bees with an image that contained no elements versus an image that had one or more, the bees understood that the set of zero was the lower number — despite never having been exposed to an “empty set.”.”

Bee’s brains have fewer than 1 million neurons compared with the 86,000 million neurons of a human brain. This finding opened the door to a new neuroscience question, how does an insect understand what nothing is? Could evolution have enabled the perception of zero when collecting food?

This new study demonstrates that even brains with fewer neurons can comprehend the complex abstract concept of zero. Maybe bees are not the only insects capable of understanidng the concept of zero. Maybe one day, bees will understand calculus! As the study suggests, these findings could help bring simpler approaches to the development of artificial intelligence.

Resources for Educators

  1. Learn more about Koko the Gorilla 
  2. The Fibonacci number in Nature – Video
  3. Bees Understand the Concept of Zero – Article
  4. What is Zero? Getting Something from Nothing – with Hannah Fry – Video