Honeybees Know a Lot About Nothing

By Yasemin Saplakoglu June 08, 2018

Humans aren’t the only species that can ponder abstract mathematical concepts like nonexistence. In addition to some other animals, honeybees understand that the number zero is less than 1, according to a new study.

Dolphins, African gray parrots and nonhuman primates also understand the idea of “zero,” but researchers were surprised to find that honeybees also comprehend this concept, considering the insects’ tiny brains, according to a statement from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Honeybees have fewer than 1 million neurons, compared with the 86 billion neurons in humans — and yet, they grasp a concept that humans, by some measures, don’t start to understand before preschool, according to NPR.

The researchers set up two cards, each of which had a set of symbols on them, like triangles or circles. Then, they trained a group of the bees to fly to the card with the lower number of symbols. (The bees quickly learned what the humans wanted them to do to get their delicious, sugary rewards).

The trained bees were then shown a card that was empty versus one that had symbols on it. Without any prior training, the bees flew more often to the empty card — thereby demonstrating that they understood that “zero” was a number less than the others, according to the study, which was published Thursday (June 7) in the journal Science.


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