What would it mean if bees could understand the concept of nothing?
That would be really something.
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.
Bees trained to land on the display with more shapes did not.
Furthermore, bees did better when the empty display was in a group with displays with larger numbers of shapes than with fewer. And that suggested the bees get the idea of more and fewer, of a numerical series in which one is closer to zero than five.
There, I did it myself. I wrote “they get the idea.” Does that mean bees have “ideas”? I have no idea. I do know that scare quotes are the unavoidable curse of comparative cognition.
Altogether, the results of the bee experiments show, Dr. Dyer said, that bees “understood that zero was a number lower than one and part of a sequence of numbers.”
But they weren’t thinking the way we think, consciously, right? “I certainly wouldn’t use the word consciousness,” in relation to bees, Dr. Dyer said. But, “the evidence is consistent with high-level cognitive abilities.”
I asked two other researchers what they thought about what was going on in the bee brains.
Lars Chittka, at Queen Mary University of London, who has explored the capacity of bees to learn and manipulate tools, said the bees showed comparable ability to primates on the tasks the researchers set them.
I told him that the word “understand” gave me the willies, and he said, “It is funny that we would hesitate to use the word understand. A primate researcher wouldn’t hesitate for a minute to use the word.”
But, he noted, humans are separated from chimpanzees by perhaps six million years of evolution and from insects by 500 million years or more. What the two species are doing could be computationally quite different.
He does suspect, he says, that bees, with their many abilities — he trained them to put a ball in a hole and showed that they can learn from each other to pull a string for a reward — may have “a kind of more flexible intelligence that allows you to solve all sorts of problems.”
I also turned to David Anderson at Stanford, who doesn’t work on bees, and wasn’t involved in this study. He studies fruit flies, but he is a champion of both of sophistication in insect brains, and of caution in judging how far that sophistication goes.
“It is difficult to know what such a task ‘means’ for the bees,” he wrote in an email, “from a ‘conceptual’ standpoint, because we do not understand the strategy that the bees’ brains are using to solve the problem.”
The eventual resolution of some of these questions, will come when researchers can see what is actually going in the brain, Dr. Anderson suggested.
Ms. Howard also pointed to deciphering brain processes as a future goal. “So far,” she said, “we don’t know how any animal represents ‘nothing’ in the brain.”