Scientists at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University have made a fascinating discovery about the honeybee—that it can understand the mathematical value of zero.

The discovery came after researchers attempted to train bees to recognise lower values.

Using sucrose as a reward, the bees were trained to navigate toward an image with a lower number of elements. For example, when presented with three or four elements, the bee would choose three; when presented with two or three elements, the bee would choose two.

Researcher Scarlett Howard took the study one step further when she attempted to present the bees with an image that had no elements and an image with one or two elements. The bees navigated toward the image with no elements, despite never having been exposed to an “empty set,” RMIT said in a press release.

Trained to pick the lowest number out of a series of options, a honeybee chooses a blank image, revealing an understanding of the concept of zero. (Courtesy: RMIT University)

The concept of zero, according to Associate Professor Adrian Dyer, is a difficult concept to grasp, as it can take children a few years to learn.

“What we haven’t known—until now—is whether insects can also understand zero,” Dyer said.

“This is a tricky neuroscience problem,” he said.

According to Dyer, bees have fewer than 1 million neurons compared with the human brain which has around 86 billion neurons.

“It is relatively easy for neurons to respond to stimuli such as light or the presence of an object but how do we, or even an insect, understand what nothing is?” Dyer said.

The findings from this study suggest that large brains are not necessary to play with numbers, according to Dr. Aurore Avargues-Weber from the University of Toulouse in France.

“The discovery that bees can show such elaborated understanding of numbers was really surprising given their tiny brain,” she said.

The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) contributed to this article.

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