PerspectiveORGANISMAL BIOLOGY

Honey bees zero in on the empty set

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Science  08 Jun 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6393, pp. 1069-1070
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat8958

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Summary

The number zero is central to contemporary mathematics and to our scientifically and technologically advanced culture (1). Yet, it is a difficult number to understand. Children grasp the symbolic number zero long after they start to understand, at around the age of 4 years, that “nothing” can be a numerical quantity—the empty set—that is smaller than one (2). Scientists therefore assumed that the concept of “nothing” as a numerical quantity was beyond the reach of any animal. Recent studies on cognitively advanced vertebrates challenge this view, however. Monkeys and birds can not only distinguish numerical quantities (3) but also grasp the empty set as the smallest quantity on the mental number line (4, 5). On page 1124 of this issue, Howard et al. (6) show that the honey bee, a small insect on a branch very remote from humans on the animal tree of life, also belongs to the elite club of animals that comprehend the empty set as the conceptual precursor of the number zero.