Bees know nothing, and that's a good thing, new study says

Honey bees understand the concept of zero.

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Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
2 min read

The concept of zero isn't the easiest to comprehend. We understand it to be the numerical representation for nothing. Still, the Wikipedia page explaining the definition, history and usage of the digit is so dense, I zoned out more than once. 

Most of us -- scientists included -- thought only humans and other animals with big brains could grasp the concept of zero. A new study, however, suggests honey bees also get the idea, making them cleverer than we may have thought. The results may also influence future designs for artificial intelligence.

"Zero is a difficult concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily — it takes children a few years to learn," Adrian Dyer, a co-author of the new study and a researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said in a statement. "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 -- is whether insects can also understand zero."

In the new study published on Thursday, scientists trained bees to choose images with the fewest elements. The bees that chose image with the smallest number of elements were rewarded with a sugar solution.

When scientists showed the bees a blank image, the insects flew towards it. Bees also understood that zero was at the lower end of a sequence of numbers. The study demonstrates that you don't need a large brain to solve tasks. 

Considering the fact that bee brains have fewer than 1 million neurons compared to the 86,000 million neurons of a human brain, the findings are particularly buzzworthy. 

"This begs the question of what neural circuitry a miniature brain like the bee's might use to mediate such remarkable performances -- this is obviously of interest to us biologists as well as the artificial intelligence crowd," Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioral ecology at Queen Mary University of London, told Gizmodo on Thursday. 

Considering zero is important in math, binary code and modern technology, the study could also result in bees -- and their tiny, clever brains -- influencing how scientists design robotics and artificial intelligence. 

"If bees can perceive zero with a brain of less than a million neurons, it suggests there are simple efficient ways to teach AI new tricks," Dyer told Science Daily on Thursday.

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