Bees understand the concept of Zero as number

By Scarlett Howard, Adrian Dyer & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

When it comes to bees, it seems that nothing really does matter.

As shown in a paper published today, our research demonstrates that the honeybee can understand the quantitative value of nothing, and place zero in the correct position along a line of sequential numbers.

This is the first evidence showing that an insect brain can understand the concept of zero, and has implications for our understanding of how complex number processing evolved. More broadly, it may help us design better artificial intelligence solutions for operating in complex environments


There are four stages of understanding the concept of zero in human culture, history, psychology and animal learning.

Stage one: Understanding zero as the absence of something, such as no food on your plate. This first level is likely enabled at an early stage of visual processing.

Stage two: Understanding zero as “nothing” vs. “something”, such as the presence or absence of light in a room. “Nothing” is thus treated as a meaningful behavioral category.

Stage three: Understanding that zero can have a numeric value and belongs at the low end of the positive number line. For example: 0 < 1 < 2 < 3 etc. (where < means “less than”).

Stage four: Understanding that zero can be assigned a symbolic representation which can be used in modern mathematics and calculations, for example: 1 – 1 = 0.

Our new study shows honeybees have achieved stage three of understanding the concept of zero.

The honeybee now joins the elite few species which have demonstrated an understanding of zero to this advanced level. While rhesus monkeysvervet monkeys, a single chimpanzee, and one African grey parrot have demonstrated the ability to learn or spontaneously understand the concept of zero, this is the first time that such a high level of cognitive number processing has been observed in an insect.


The importance of zero throughout human history is not to be underestimated.

Chinese counting rods used a blank space to help represent a place holder in values, however zero went unnoticed as a number with a quantitative value for centuries. For example, Roman numerals do not have a symbol for zero.

The earliest record of the symbolic zero (0) we are familiar with today is from an Indian inscription on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, India (AD 876). Arabic numerals, along with the modern idea of zero, did not reach the West until 1200 AD.Interestingly, while it took centuries for the concept of zero to be fully understood and utilised in human culture, honeybees have learnt to apply previous number knowledge to demonstrate an understanding of zero within a day when presented with training to promote numerical cognition.


Bees often forage in complex environments and have evolved visual processing solutions adapted to this life.

In our research, we tested number processing in bees by individually training them with special apparatus to collect a sugary reward, and learn the rules of “less than” considering the numbers 1 – 6.

An individual bee would need to choose between two numbers each time it returned to the experiment. For example, a bee would be presented with two new numbers (3 vs. 4; 1 vs. 2; 2 vs. 5, etc.) until it had reached, over many learning events, at least 80% accuracy for landing on and thus choosing the lowest number.

Once the bee achieved this, it would be presented with the previously unseen stimulus of “an empty set” representing zero.

Surprisingly, bees trained to the “less than” rule preferred to visit the empty set rather than any other higher value number. This means bees understood an empty set was lower in number than a set containing actual elements.

In further experiments, other bees were able to place zero at the low end of the numerical continuum and demonstrated numerical distance effects. Numerical distance effects are demonstrated when accuracy increases as the difference between two numbers increases. The study showed that while bees could differentiate between zero and one, they performed better when the numbers were further apart, such as in the case of zero vs. six.

The next step for research on the processing of zero is to understand how small and seemingly simple brains (like those of bees) represent zero in a neurological sense.

Andreas Nieder, an expert in numerical competency in animals from the University of Tübingen in Germany writes:

The advanced numerical skills of bees and other animals raise the question of how their brains transform “nothing” into an abstract concept of zero.

This new research on bees has created many new questions in the field and also makes it clear that brain size and complexity does not fully determine intelligence and, in particular, numerical ability.

Source: The Conversation

Some passages I like from “The Social Animal” by David Brooks

On intelligence and form of modern world:

“We are masters at structuring our physical and social worlds so as to press complex coherent behaviors from these unruly resources. We use intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence. Our brains make the world smart so that we can be dumb in peace! Or, to look at it another way, it is the human brain plus these chunks of external scaffolding that finally constitutes the smart, rational inference engine we call mind. Look at that way, we are smart after all- but our boundaries extend further out into the world than we might have initially supposed”


Varieties of Capitalism approach by Peter Hall and David Soskice argues that:

“Different national cultures have different motivational systems, different relationships to authority and capitalism. Germany, for example, has tight interlocking institutions like work councils. It also has labor markets that make it hard to hire and fire people. These arrangement mean that Germany excels at incremental innovation – the sort of steady improvements that are common in metallurgy and manufacturing. The United States, on the other hand, has looser economic networks. It is relatively easy to hire and fire and start new businesses. The United States thus excels at radical innovation, at the sort of rapid paradigm shifts prevalent in software and technology.”

Do you agree / disagree? Sure cant explain the whole Silicon Valley phenomena, but interesting perspective, huh?


Importance of emergent systems to understand human behavior:

“Emergent systems dont rely upon a central controller. Instead, once a pattern of a interaction is established, it has a downward influence on the behavior of the components.

Emergent systems are really good at passing down customs across hundreds or thousands of generations. As Deborah Gordon of Stanford discovered, id you put ants in a large plastic tray, they will build a colony. They will also build a cemetery for dead ants, and the cemetery will be as far as possible from the colony. They will also build a garbage dump, which will be as far as possible from both the colony and the cemetery. No individual ant worked out he geometry. In fact, each individual ant may be blind to the entire structure. Instead individual ants followed local dues. Other ants adjusted to the cues of a few ants, ant pretty soon the whole colony had established a precedent of behavior.  Once this precedent has been established, thousands of generations can be born and the wisdom will endure. Once established, the precedents exert their own downward force.

The brain is an emergent system. A marriage is an emergent system. Cultures are emergent systems.

And poverty is an emergent system, too.”


To be continued…