Bess, Honey & Nothing

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Not only can a honey bee count, it understands the concept of zero, according to researchers. CreditFrank Bienewald/LightRocket, via Getty Images

Thanks as always to James Gorman, one of the best illuminators of any variety of natural mysteries who we never tire of citing in these pages. He tells funny stories sometimes, about beautiful as well as awesome phenomena that we want to know. And he knows how to tell it:

Do Bees Know Nothing?

Researchers say bees understand the concept of nothing, or zero. But do we understand what that means?

What would it mean if bees could understand the concept of nothing?

That would be really something.

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Bees were rewarded when they landed on cards with more shapes.CreditScarlett R. Howard et al.

Yet that is what scientists reported Thursday in the journal Science. Bees had already demonstrated they could count. Now, the researchers wrote, bees have shown that they understand the absence of things — shapes on a display in this experiment — as a numerical quantity: none or zero.

This is a big leap. Some past civilizations had trouble with the idea of zero. And the only nonhuman animals so far to pass the kind of test bees did are primates and one bird. Not one species, one bird, the famed African gray parrot, Alex, who knew not only words, but numbers.

Bees? Really?It’s not the results of the study I wonder about. There seems to be no question that bees do quite well at the standard understanding-zero experiment, clearly putting them in a cognitive elite.

And in one sense that’s no surprise, researchers continue to find that insect brains are far more complex and capable of learning, calculating and deciding than we had ever imagined, and bees seem particularly smart.

It’s not the science, but the language that gave me pause. How do we understand the word “understand”? What is our concept of what “concept” means?

When I first read that bees could understand the concept of nothing, I thought, well, they’re one up on cosmologists, many of whom say the universe came from nothing although they can’t agree with philosophers on what “nothing” is.

Obviously, this was not the problem the bees were asked to solve, yet.

Here’s what they did. Scarlett Howard and Adrian Dyer of RMIT University in Melbourne and their colleagues trained bees to land on visual displays for a reward.

Some were rewarded if they landed on the displays with more shapes, like squares or circles, and some if they landed on the displays with fewer. The shapes were of different sizes and the displays with varying numbers of shapes were hung on a wheel in different places to avoid giving any spatial clues.

Then, the researchers introduced a display with no shapes. Bees trained to land on a display with fewer shapes landed on the so-called “empty set,” the nothing display, the zero card.

Read the whole story here.

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