Do Bees Know Nothing?

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

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

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.

Bees trained to land on the display with more shapes did not.

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

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 Caltech, 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.”


An earlier version of this article misstated the researcher David Anderson’s institutional affiliation. He is at Caltech, not Stanford.

Nonfiction: What We Get Wrong About Animals

Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales From the Wild Side of Wildlife
By Lucy Cooke
Illustrated. 336 pp. Basic Books. $28.

Humans have long trapped animals in cages, nets and snares, but the tangled webs of vanity, curiosity, cruelty and fear we cast over other creatures may be even more perilous. We see our virtues and vices reflected in animals — hardworking beavers, indolent sloths, innocent lambs, greedy vultures — through a glass darkly. But these well-worn clichés blind us to a world far more dazzling and varied, according to Lucy Cooke, the acclaimed zoology-trained author and documentary filmmaker, in her new book, “The Truth About Animals.” As she writes, “Painting the animal kingdom with our artificial ethical brush denies us the astonishing diversity of life, in all of its blood-drinking, sibling-eating, corpse-shagging glory.” (Yes, corpse shagging. The penguin portion is not for the faint of heart.)

In 13 breezy chapters, each devoted to a misunderstood creature, Cooke collects some of our most crackpot notions (and the equally startling truths) about animals. She nimbly pings between arcane, medieval and modern sources, assembling a cast of characters that includes unhinged aristocrats, ill-fated adventurers, Thomas Jefferson, Julius Caesar, Sigmund Freud, the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and more than a few mad scientists.


Aristotle believed the courage of animals corresponds to the heat of their blood; European scientists contended that frogs hatch from wet clay, caterpillars from cabbage and eels from drops of dew. Others theorized that migrating swallows spend winters underwater or on the moon. The real animal behavior Cooke reports is often even more extraordinary. Researchers have recently observed chimpanzees dancing in the rain, fashioning spears to hunt bush babies and playing with sticks they cradle and put to bed like dolls.

Cooke unearths old beliefs and debunks modern-day myths with humor and panache. Pandas, we learn, are not bumbling fluff balls too busy being cute to breed in captivity. Elaborate matchmaking efforts at zoos say more about us and our obsessive meddling than the bears, which are known to mate more than 40 times in a single afternoon in the wild. And bats — popularly believed to be blind, bloodsucking, disease-bearing rats with wings — are more “Buddha than Beelzebub.” They see perfectly well, are very rarely rabid and share more DNA with us than they do with rodents, and only three species are vampiric. They are also among the few animals to engage in oral sex, a fact Cooke presents as one of their “porn-star credentials.”

The book is big on bawdy humor, and while it’s not that weird mating habits and giant genitalia aren’t funny, Cooke describes the “ins and outs” of animal sex with a glee normally found among middle schoolers. (Gonads inspire some of the most blindingly painful puns and rhymes; a debate over beaver testicles becomes the “fluster over the beaver’s cluster.”)

Cooke’s appetite for the salacious sometimes overwhelms her sensitivity, as it does in her account of Maurice K. Temerlin, an American psychology professor who reared a chimpanzee named Lucy in his suburban home. At first Lucy is a model “daughter” who uses silverware and raises a kitten. Temerlin, disturbingly, then begins to fix her cocktails. Soon Lucy is fixing herself cocktails. When she takes to masturbating with the vacuum cleaner, Temerlin responds by buying her Playgirl and even participating in one of these sessions to “see what would happen.” (Nothing, mercifully.) When Lucy eventually grows too unruly, Temerlin offloads her in Gambia, where she is flayed and butchered by poachers. A story like this is worth analyzing for what it might reveal about anthropomorphism at the edge. Cooke, however, plays it for laughs.

The fraught history of humans and animals has lately been the focus of expanding scholarship, insightful meditations such as John Berger’s influential essay “Why Look at Animals?” and environmentalist critiques. Cooke, however, attempts neither to probe its complexities nor to sound apocalyptic alarms (though she does, dutifully, note the impact of human carelessness and mass consumption on other species). She is not plumbing the depths; she is riding the thermals. Her pace is quick, her touch is light, and through her wealth of research we can reach new heights of wonder.