Bees Fly Towards Colors, Not Numbers

NPR recently published a piece titled, “Math Bee: Honeybees Seem To Understand The Notion Of Zero” that leads:

Honeybees understand that “nothing” can be “something” that has numerical meaning, showing that they have a primitive grasp of the concept of zero.

To which my response was, What? Sadly, the study is behind a paywall, so I had to rely on the description of the experiment given in the NPR article. And I am not an entomologist, so my ignorance of bees stands open to correction. So I am going to confine my argument to the following:

Premise Bees can detect and respond to different wavelengths of light (so as to behave differently when presented with different colors).

Premise Detecting and responding to different wavelengths of light is a more common biological capacity than detecting and responding to arithmetic features of an environment.

Conclusion The bees in the given experiment, as described in the NPR piece, could equally be, and indeed more likely are, responding to different colors and not grasping arithmetic features of their environment.

That qualifier in bold is important: perhaps the full experiment has further conditions that rules out the bees responding, speaking-loosely, to colors as opposed to numbers. But the experiment as described in the piece does not show at all, so far as I can tell (being massively ignorant about bees), that bees can understand zero, much less any arithmetic notion. Here is the experiment, as described in the piece:

…[They] lured bees to a wall where they were presented with two square cards. Each card had a different number of black symbols, such as dots or triangles. [They] trained one group of bees to understand that sugar water would always be located under the card with the least number of symbols…The bees quickly learned to fly to the card with the fewest symbols, an impressive feat…The researchers presented the bees with a card that had a single symbol — and a blank card that had nothing on it. The bees seemed to understand that “zero” was less than one, because they flew toward the blank card more often than you’d expect if they were choosing at random — although they weren’t that good at distinguishing between the two.

Here’s the experiment then:

  1. Bees are trained to fly towards cards with a non-zero number of symbols on them such that: the fewer symbols on the card indicates the reward.
  2. Bees are then confronted, for the first time, with a card with one symbol and a blank card no symbols such that: the card with no symbols has the better reward.

The results are interesting:

  • Bees do not randomly choose between cards, nor fly towards the card with one symbol, the one that they have been conditioned to fly towards: they fly towards the card with no symbols that they have not been conditioned towards at all.

The experimenters then infer that the best explanation for this is that the bees understand zero. But this is not the best explanation, so far as the description goes. Why not the following description of the experiment:

  1. Bees are trained to fly towards cards with less black coloring on them such that: the card with less black coloring indicates the reward.
  2. Bees are then confronted, for the first time, with a blank card with no black coloring and a card little black coloring such that: the blank card has the better reward.

The result is then still interesting, but more readily explained by their conditioning and by a trait that is more common, namely, color perception:

  • Bees do not randomly choose between cards, nor fly towards the card with one symbol, the one that they have been conditioned to fly towards: they fly towards the card with no symbols that they have been conditioned towards only by prior experience with other cards with different colors.

In other words, the hypothesis that bees have been trained to orient themselves away from the color black or towards another color more readily explains why they should move towards a blank card that they have never seen before. It is also a more common trait, which increases the odds that color-perception is what is really going on, not counting. The TL;DR version: don’t rule out more plausible alternatives by analogizing with your own introspective case. Prefer one that only requires visual capacities rather than arithmetic capacities.

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