While it may not sound especially complicated, the concept of zero—nothing, nada, zilch—is a deceptively complicated idea, with the very first placeholder for zero dating back to roughly 300 BCE but not appearing in Western Europe before the 1100s AD. Children typically can’t wrap their minds around the idea until they’re in preschool, which makes a recent discovery by Australian scientists all the more interesting. These researchers discovered a surprising animal that can be taught to understand the concept of zero—the honeybee.

According to this study, other animals are capable of understanding zero, including parrots, monkeys, and dolphins, meaning they can understand the differences between nothing and something, but the honeybee is the first insect that’s proven capable. This new study, which was published by the journal Science, found that honeybees can rank amounts based on “less than” and “greater than” and can understand nothing is a lower amount than one. The scientists trained honeybees in their lab to distinguish images showing the fewest elements (or dots, as were used). If a bee picked the image that had the fewest dots in a set, it received sweet water as opposed to the bitter quinine it received if it picked another image.

Once the bees understood the concept, the researchers brought in a different challenge—the honeybees had to pick between an image with dots and one with no dots at all. In over 60 percent of their trials, the bees successfully extrapolated that if the challenge was picking the fewest number of dots, and they had to choose an image with some dots or one without dots, then no dots had to be the right answer. They grasped the idea that nothing could have a numerical value.

While the idea that an insect can have this level of intelligence is surprising at first, honeybees are actually capable of quite a few sizable acts of intelligence for insects. For instance, bees can count, communicate through “waggle dancing,” teach other bees skills, and even think abstractly. All of this is proof enough that honeybees are impressively intelligent creatures, even though their insect brains don’t resemble ours in the slightest.

When you consider how different primates and bees are from an evolutionary standpoint and how their brains differ from ours—containing fewer than a million neurons compared to our 86 billion—this discovery raises many new questions regarding the neural foundation for understanding numbers, and it will definitely lead to more research focused on the way the brain processes various concepts, including that of zero.

Photo By mibuch

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