Honeybees understand that “nothing” can be “something” that has numerical meaning, showing that they have a primitive grasp of the concept of zero.
That’s according to a newly published study in Science, which shows that bees possess a mathematical ability once thought to exist only in dolphins, primates, birds and humans who are beyond the preschool years.
“This is quite amazing, in my view, that bees can really do it,” says Andreas Nieder, a scientist who studies how animals’ process the idea of “nothing” and was not part of the research team.
He says zero was discovered relatively recently in human history, and was essential in the development of both mathematics and science. “It’s a hard and very abstract concept,” Nieder says. “It is a sort of eccentric uncle in the number family.”
Previous experiments have shown that honeybees have some facility with numbers, because they were able to count landmarks as they foraged around for a sweet reward. But in these tests, the insects couldn’t count very high — only to about four.
Still, that made a team of researchers in Australia and France want to explore what else the bees could do with numbers. Scarlett Howard at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, 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.
Howard trained one group of bees to understand that sugar water would always be located under the card with the least number of symbols. “They could come and see two circles versus three circles, or four triangles versus one triangle, or something like that,” she explains.
The bees quickly learned to fly to the card with the fewest symbols, an impressive feat.