Scientists Discover Bees Understand the Concept of Zero

The study raises the question of how a species that differs so much from humans - with fewer than one million neurons in its brain, compared to a human's 86,000 million neurons - can share such a complex skill.

When scientists showed the bees a blank image, the insects flew towards it. Bees also understood that zero was at the lower end of a sequence of numbers.

"Zero is a hard concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily - it takes children a few years to learn", the study's co-author Adrian Dyer, associate professor at Melbourne's RMIT University, said in a press release.

"We've long believed only humans had the intelligence to get the concept, but recent research has shown monkeys and birds have the brains for it as well".

A new study finds that untrained honey bees have the intellectual capacity to understand the abstract concept that zero has value. "What we haven't known - until now - is whether insects can also understand zero".

In passing this test, honey bees have shown the research team that they have a primitive grasp of an abstract mathematical concept.

RMIT PhD researcher Scarlett Howard set out to test the honeybee on its understanding, marking individual honeybees for easy identification and luring them to a specially-designed testing apparatus.

The insects soon learned to determine that two was smaller in two vs three elements and three was smaller in three vs four elements. They lured a few honeybees, which are seen as a ideal model for insect cognition, into the apparatus and trained them to choose the image that had the lowest number of elements.

The true surprise came to Howard when she realized that the bees began to fly to the blank card and not the one that was printed with a symbol, proving that they understood that zero holds a place on the number line.

'This is a tricky neuroscience problem, ' Dyer said.

Dyer, a researcher in the Bio Inspired Digital Sensing-Lab (BIDS-Lab) in RMIT's Digital Ethnography Research Centre, said the findings opened the door to new understandings of how different brains could represent zero.

Most of us - scientists included - thought only humans and other animals with big brains could grasp the concept of zero.

That said, as zero forms the core of maths and binary code, the researchers think that the neural model mechanics in bees could be used in the development of robotics and machine intelligence.

The number zero has an integral role in mathematics and many algebraic structures.

"Their brains are probably processing information in a very clever [i.e., efficient] way" Dyer said. Large brains are thus not necessary to play with numbers.

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