While various vertebrates have been taught to learn humans’ concept of “zero,” might too honey bees, even though their brains have thousands of times fewer neurons? In episode 31 Adrian Dyer from RMIT and Monash University in Australia talks with us about his work first teaching bees to count and then extrapolate what they’ve learned to infer zero. His open-access article “Numerical ordering of zero in honey bees” was published with Scarlett Howard and multiple co-authors in the June 2018 issue in Science.

Nothing to a Bee - Adrian Dyer
Nothing to a Bee - Adrian Dyer
Nothing to a Bee - Adrian Dyer Nothing to a Bee - Adrian Dyer
@rwatkins says:
Lastly, we couldn't resist asking Adrian whether he or the study's lead author, Scarlett Howard, often get stung by bees in their work … and, if so, whether they've grown accustomed to it.
@rwatkins says:
Both in Eletters posted to Science magazine's website as well as in a vigorous debate on Reddit, commenters have suggested that the bees may have been differentiating the cards used in the study by way of their lightness or darkness rather than arithmetic. However, Adrian and his team designed the cards so that - except, obviously, for the blank zero card - they all had same ratio of black to white, as he explains next.
@rwatkins says:
Since the minimum sample size necessary for a study depends on the data analyses that a researcher plans to carry out, we asked Adrian how his team went about determining how many bees to include in their experiments.
@rwatkins says:
As Adrian explains next, after teaching bees the "less than" rule, the team then tested whether the bees could apply that learning to a novel task: namely, choosing a blank card representing one less than one, or zero. Here’s Adrian Dyer.
@rwatkins says:
The team didn't stop there, however, as we’ll hear after this short break.
@rwatkins says:
Next, Ryan and I were interested in finding out more about how the bees in the study were specifically trained to understand the concept of zero.
@rwatkins says:
Bees are well known for their intelligence and industriousness, as well as their ability to communicate the presence of food to others in their hive. Given this, we asked Adrian how he and his team prevented the trained bees from teaching their nestmates about the sugar water in the study's experiments.
@rwatkins says:
Flower colors are believed to have evolved over 100 million years to in response to their bee pollinators’ color vision. So Ryan and I were interested in learning what the quality of bees’ vision is like.
@rwatkins says:
The Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov famously discovered classical conditioning. In his research with dogs he repeatedly paired a potent natural stimulus – food – with a previously neutral stimulus – sound. In doing so, he was able to cause the dogs to salivate in anticipation of the food simply by making the sound. Doug and I asked Adrian how many times a bee has to have a behavior reinforced in a similar way for it to reliably reproduce the behavior.
@rwatkins says:
Adrian and his team used a couple of different devices to teach and test their bees, so Ryan and I wanted to find out more about how they work.
@rwatkins says:
Since modern bee research dates back just 100 years, Doug and I were interested in knowing what Adrian thinks might be some potential applications of the discovery that bees can understand the concept of zero.
@rwatkins says:
This made us wonder when it was that people first began researching sensory perception in bees, as well as what’s been learned about their cognitive abilities in the time since.
@rwatkins says:
Doug and I began our conversation by asking Adrian where the bees that he and his team study come from, and how they’re trained.
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Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins

How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Dyer, A.. (2018, September 4). Parsing Science – Nothing to a Bee. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.7048544


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


Adrian Dyer: What I like to think about is we have an animal or an insect, we have a small brain, less than a million neurons, and she wants to come back and participate in their experiment all day long.

Ryan Watkins: This is parsing science. The unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.

Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. The humans invented the concept of zero about two thousand years ago. It’s only been in the last forty years that researchers have determined that other animals including monkeys chimpanzees and parrots can be trained to understand the number as well. Today in episode 31 of parsing science we’re joined by adrian dyer from RMIT and Monash University in Australia. He’ll talk with us about how honeybees have recently been found to infer the number 0 based solely on learning the concepts of greater than and less then. Here’s Adrian Dyer.

Dyer: Hi! my name is Adrian Dyer. I’m a visual ecologist. That means I like studying how vision works in very complex environments, how we see the world, and how different animals see the world. And, this is a fascination which started when I was a young boy and I was just very interested how I saw things, how different people saw things differently, and my first insight into that was to study photography because you can document things. Because I didn’t even know about studying biology when I was a young boy, and so I did a photographic course in a photographic degree and was very lucky that I had a job at a university as a photographer and a professor of biology was very interested in vision and asked me to do a PhD with him. And, I got involved with working with animals and visual perception, and that’s how I got started on these a long time ago. But, I think what inspires you when you’re a young man or young woman, often influences your whole life.

Watkins: Doug and I began our conversation by asking Adrian where the bees that he and his team study come from, and how they’re trained.

Dyer: Actually, it is really interesting. So, the experiments happen outdoors, so we’re not in a lab environment. They conducted on university grounds and we have beehive or beehives set up and maintained by professional beekeeper. So, those bees are just foraging all over campus and then what we will set up is a small gravity feeder in close proximity to the hive, and some bees will come and collect about five or ten percent sucrose concentration and just take it back to the hive. And, what we can do is go along with a spoon, it’s actually a special bee spoon but it’s a bit like a spoon, and put it under the nose of one of the bees, and mister kept their proboscis and lick this and liked it very much. And then, we can take this bee across to a separate testing site, which is outside, and train the bee to come back to that testing site and we put a little color mark on her back, so we know which bee is. So, once she comes back, that takes about an hour to train the bee to do that. We can start training him to use the apparatus and then introduce visual stimuli and get them to start solving the problem. The nice thing is, because of bee we’ll come back and do this all day long, we can give fairly long training programs. So, we can get good insights into their visual learning. What I like to think about is we have an animal or an insect, we have a small brain, less than a million neurons, and she wants to come back and participate in our experiment all day long, which means we can train her for a long time; but also conduct lots of control experiments which is very important in science. And, she just keeps coming back and participating in the experiment and she’s highly motivated. So, our experiments typically designed so that all the data is collected in one day, but the bees will come back on subsequent days and some of the work we do we’re interested in their long-term memory and how memory might be robust over several days or might decay depending the type of visual problem the bees have been encountered with. These links back to us as humans ourselves. We’re interested how we remember certain things and why we forget certain things, are these general principles in how brains operate, and what are some of the rules governing that. So, it’s some of the other work we do.

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