# Math bee: Honeybees seem to understand the notion of zero

1. [5]
Archimedes
I'm not convinced the bees understand zero based on this experiment, though it's pretty interesting regardless. In particular, I'm not sure that the bees are really interpreting the markings...

I'm not convinced the bees understand zero based on this experiment, though it's pretty interesting regardless. In particular, I'm not sure that the bees are really interpreting the markings numerically. For example, they could be basing the choice on how "noisy" the papers look and avoiding the ones that have more "noisy" markings. I think the fact that they have difficulty distinguishing 0 from 1 (which are numerically very different), supports this interpretation.

As an analogy, consider if the experiment were done with color where the bees were trained to pick the least colorful papers (e.g. they'd choose white over light pink over red). Just because they pick white doesn't mean they understand zero or anything significant about color theory.

1. [3]
Apparently studies show this in monkeys and young children, as well. The full article in Science (paywall) appears to say that this phenomenon (numerical distance effect) is actually a "hallmark...

For example, they could be basing the choice on how "noisy" the papers look and avoiding the ones that have more "noisy" markings. I think the fact that they have difficulty distinguishing 0 from 1 (which are numerically very different), supports this interpretation.

Apparently studies show this in monkeys and young children, as well. The full article in Science (paywall) appears to say that this phenomenon (numerical distance effect) is actually a "hallmark of number discrimination."

I do wish there was more information on the experimental setup, but it does say that:

The researchers controlled for systematic changes in the appearance of the numerosity displays that occur when the number of items is changed. They thus ensured that the bees were discriminating between different numbers, rather than responding to low-level visual cues.

This may address the idea of different levels of "noisiness," which you bring up, but obviously there's not much detail there on how they did so.

1. [2]
Archimedes
I'd like to read more about how they controlled for numerosity. I believe it's possible, but I'm still fairly skeptical.

I'd like to read more about how they controlled for numerosity. I believe it's possible, but I'm still fairly skeptical.

1 vote
Me too-- I wanted to quote those segments from the original text for some context, but I was disappointed it wasn't a full paper with discussion and methods.

Me too-- I wanted to quote those segments from the original text for some context, but I was disappointed it wasn't a full paper with discussion and methods.

2. RespectMyAuthoriteh
That's a really good point. It's obviously difficult to design experiments to test the intelligence of other creatures without introducing some sort of human bias into it.

That's a really good point. It's obviously difficult to design experiments to test the intelligence of other creatures without introducing some sort of human bias into it.

Very cool! I was considering posting an article from Vox, which covers a few different aspects of the study and is pretty interesting, too. (Study: honey bees understand nothing)

Very cool! I was considering posting an article from Vox, which covers a few different aspects of the study and is pretty interesting, too. (Study: honey bees understand nothing)

3. silva-rerum
(edited )