A new study finds that untrained honey bees have the intellectual capacity to understand the abstract concept that zero has value.
'Zero is a hard concept to understand and a mathematical skill that doesn't come easily - it takes children a few years to learn, ' Associate Professor Adrian Dyer, from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia said.
Bees could be smarter than us in the understanding of "zero".
As well as being a critical pollinator, the honeybee is an exceptional model species for investigating insect cognition, with previous research showing they can learn intricate skills from other bees and even understand abstract concepts like sameness and difference.
To put their hypothesis to test, they trained two groups of 10 bees to first understand the twin concepts of "less than" and "greater than" by rewarding each correct answer with sugar.
Although they flew more often to an empty card versus one that had one symbol on it, it became easier for them to differentiate when the symbols' card increased in number; for example, they more often flew to the zero when the other card had four symbols than when it had one, according to NPR.
'How does a brain represent nothing?
"This is a tricky neuroscience problem", he said.
That said, as zero forms the core of maths and binary code, the researchers think that the neural model mechanics in bees could be used in the development of robotics and machine intelligence. Australian and French researchers published their findings in the journal Science, noting that their flying subjects were able to prioritize numerical quantities using a reward system, and that the results could have implications for artificial intelligence down the road.
"Crossing a road is simple for adult humans, we understand if there are no approaching cars, no bikes or trams, then it is probably ok to cross", he said.
The number zero has an integral role in mathematics and many algebraic structures.
"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".
A research team comprised of scientists in France and Australia were interested to learn what else, if anything, the insects could do, mathematically speaking.
The ability to grasp the concept of zero is very rare in the animal kingdom, but this new study proves that it might actually be more widespread than what was previously thought. The study demonstrates that you don't need a large brain to solve tasks.