Tue | Nov 20, 2018

Tony Deyal | Song of a bee

Published:Saturday | June 16, 2018 | 12:00 AM

"What's purple and hums?" An electric grape.

"Why does it hum?" Because it doesn't know the words.

This quip was used by Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor who predicted the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it became a reality, to tell us how we were no longer into the very long shaggy-dog jokes that were common in the sixties and instead had switched to the short stuff.

Today, it is even clearer when we consider the extent to which one-liners have become the staple of stand-up comedy and the popularity of events like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where 'short and snappy' is the norm and the winners include "My dad has suggested that I register for a donor card. He's a man after my own heart"; "Why is it old people say, 'there's no place like home', yet when you put them in one ..."; "I've been happily married for four years - out of a total of 10"; "I'll tell you what's unnatural in the eyes of God. Contact lenses"; and, "I've made a terrible spelling mistake in the wedding order of service. My stepfather, of course, is a COUNT."

So what's yellow, sometimes black and hums? A honeybee. "Why does it hum?" Because it can't sing, and besides, it doesn't know the words.

"But if it knew the words, what would it sing?" Most likely, it would choose between Billy Preston's 1975 hit, Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing or Ben E. King's I Who Have Nothing.

If it is into disco, it might probably go for Chris Brown's Zero with the line, "Ask how many nights I've been thinking of you, zero." No more Abba's hokey, "Honey, honey." Of course, if your bee is in a bad mood it might choose Sting instead and seeing that he went on his own a long time ago, you can't even call The Police. However, if the cops ever showed up on the scene and asked them what they were up to, the bees would quickly hum their equivalent of "Nothing, Officer. Nothing at all."

 

New buzz

 

And they would be right. The latest buzz stirring up the scientific community is a report by Science Daily that bees understand the concept of zero. Smithsonian.com clarified the link between zero and the bee as hero, with the headline, 'Bees May Understand Zero, a Concept That Took Humans Millennia to Grasp: If the finding is true, they'd be the first invertebrates to join an elite club that includes primates, dolphins and parrots'.

The online magazine explained, "As a mathematical concept, the idea of zero is relatively new in human society - and indisputably revolutionary. It's allowed humans to develop algebra, calculus and Cartesian coordinates; questions about its properties continue to incite mathematical debate today. So it may sound unlikely that bees - complex and community-based insects to be sure, but insects nonetheless - seem to have mastered their own numerical concept of nothingness.

"Despite their sesame-seed-sized brains, honeybees have proven themselves the prodigies of the insect world. Researchers have found that they can count up to about four, distinguish abstract patterns, and communicate locations with other bees. Now, Australian scientists have found what may be their most impressive cognitive ability yet: 'zero processing,' or the ability to conceptualise nothingness as a numerical value that can be compared with more tangible quantities like one and two."

 

Too much 'Fuss'

 

Some people have asked why all this fuss about something that really does not affect us directly and may all come to nought if, as some other scientists claim, the process may be honeycombed with flaws. Several, including Clint Perry, a researcher on the subject of bee cognition, did not duck the controversy and insisted there could be other explanations for the bees' behaviour that make him "not convinced" that bees truly understand the concept of zero.

Still, James Gorman, writing in The New York Times, sees what the bees did as more than a zero-sum outcome: "This is a big leap. Some past civilisations had trouble with the idea of zero. And the only non-human animals so far to pass the kind of test bees did are primates and one bird. Not one species, one bird, the famed African grey parrot, Alex, who know not only words, but numbers."

Alex (short for Avian Language Experiment), who had an intelligence at the level of dolphins and great apes, was able to reason on a basic level and use words creatively. The other birds who show signs of remarkable intelligence are crows. They are said to have the reasoning ability rivalling that of a human seven-year-old. Crows are the only non-primate species known to fashion tools, such as prodding sticks and hooks, which they use to winkle out grubs from logs and branches. Of course, they still have a way to go to catch up with the honeybees who can also be trained to sniff out drugs and explosives. However, until they work out the concept of zero and apply it successfully, they have absolutely nothing to crow about.

In fact, when around the 5th Century A.D. the use of zero (known as Shunya in Sanskrit), deemed one of the greatest innovations in human history, emerged in India, the Maharajah of Bakshali decided to have a huge ceremony honouring the wise and holy man who had come up with the idea. After much feasting and exchanging of equations, the Maharajah made a speech which summed up the achievement. Addressing the mathematical whiz who had zeroed in on the problems caused by not having zero, the Maharajah said passionately, "Thanks. Thanks for nothing."

- Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the bees in the study went around spreading the news by humming a song made famous by their favourite band, the Bee Gees, You Should Be Dancing.