As strange as it may sound, bees are able to grasp the concept of zero, a new study published in the journal Science reports.
Zero — which stands for the abstraction of nothingness — is not an easy concept to grasp. In fact, until now, humans and chimpanzees were thought to be the only animals who could process it.
While it is not common for a bug to grasp such a detailed concept, bees have the most neurons in the insects world and they use all of them at full power. In fact, the male bee’s brain is more densely packed than the average mammal.
While past studies have shown bees are able to count, the new one also reveals they are capable of abstract thinking.
In the research, scientists from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia and the University of Toulouse in France analyzed the insects to see how if they could understand the basic rules of arithmetic.
The team lured bees to a wall where they had to choose between two different square cards with different symbols on them. The cards with the fewest symbols had a sugary treat underneath, while the ones with more symbols did not.
Eventually, the bees learned that some numbers are less than others. After that, researchers put a blank card into the equation. The bees flew to that card 60 to 70 percent of the time, suggesting they know that nothing is less than something.
That process got even easier when the bees needed to choose between a blank card and one covered in many different symbols.
“When we showed them zero versus six, they did that at a much higher level than zero versus one,” said lead author Scarlett Howard, a researcher from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, according to ZME Science. “So what tells us is that they consider zero as an actual quantity along the number line. They’re actually better at doing zero versus six because those two numbers are further apart.”
These new findings are surprising and could alter the way scientists view bees. There is also a chance that many more animals understand the concept of zero that scientists assume. The team plans to conduct follow up tests on that idea and see what else they can uncover.
“Zero is a difficult concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn’t come easily—it takes children a few years to learn,” said study co-author Adrian Dyer, a researcher at Monash University, according to Outer Places. “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. What we haven’t known—until now—whether insects can also understand zero.”