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Honey bees can zero in on the advanced concept of zero

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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IMAGE: Schematic representation of how over a period of time bees learn to choose between combinations of numbers such that the lower number is correct, and then when presented with a problem of... view more 

Credit: Composite image by Scarlett Howard, Jair Garcia and Adrian Dyer

The honey bee has joined the ranks of dolphins, parrots, primates and preschool children, in demonstrating the ability to distinguish zero on the numerical spectrum. This finding raises questions of how a species that differs so much from humans - with fewer than one million neurons in its brain, compared to a human's 86,000 million neurons - can share such a complex skill, and how it benefits the tiny insect in its environment. While intuitive to modern humans, the full understanding of zero is an advanced numerical concept that's challenging to grasp; several ancient human civilizations lacked the full understanding of zero in their numeric systems. Recently, scientists have shown that some vertebrates can understand the concept, and now, Scarlett Howard and colleagues present evidence that honey bees - though remote from the mammalian branch of evolution - are also part of this "elite club." Free-flying bees were lured to a wall containing white squares each with a different number (from two to five) of black shapes. The bees were trained on "greater than" and "less than" concepts with food rewards (the "less than" group was rewarded for flying toward the display with fewer items, for example). The researchers then introduced two numbers the bees hadn't yet seen in their training - one and zero. The bees were consistently able to distinguish zero as lower than one. Interestingly, they were more accurate when zero was presented with a more distant number choice - a trait also seen in humans. For future studies, it would be worthwhile to zero in on how the bee brain processes this advanced numerical concept compared to human brains, adds Andreas Nieder in a related Perspective.

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