Bees know nothing

For the first time, an insect has shown an understanding of the number zero

You might take it for granted now, but it probably took you a while to wrap your head around the idea of zero. It’s essential for maths, science and computing, but ‘nothing’ is an abstract concept and can be hard to grasp. Only those animals associated with high intelligence – primates, dolphins and parrots – were previously known to have the capacity to understand zero, and there were even ancient human civilisations with it missing from their numeric systems.


Honey bees are famous for their detailed communication, and they’ve been shown to be pretty smart. In a recent study, bees were trained to pick the image containing the lowest number of circles when presented with several options, in exchange for a reward of sugar solution. They were consistently able to complete the task, but the surprise came when the researchers periodically added in a blank piece of paper. The bees had only been trained with images (for example, to choose one circle over three and two over five) but they still correctly identified the blank image as the one with the fewest elements.


This is the first case of an invertebrate demonstrating an understanding of nothing and its place among other numbers. The human brain contains around 86,000 million neurons, but a honey bee’s has fewer than a million. Scientists aren’t sure how this simple network is able to process such complex concepts, but they believe the answer could not only further our knowledge of animal brains but also lead to huge developments in the field of artificial intelligence.


Image: Simon Ratzinger/flickr