Bees Aren’t Just For Spelling: Study Finds Honeybees’ Math Ability Equals Apes & 4-Year-Old Children

A new study finds that untrained honey bees have the intellectual capacity to understand the abstract concept that zero has value.

Bees math ability
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A new study finds that untrained honey bees have the intellectual capacity to understand the abstract concept that zero has value.

In the past, scientists believed that understanding the concept of zero was unique to human comprehension. Recent studies have shown that other vertebrates are capable of grasping the “concept of the empty set.” New findings suggest that untrained honey bees have the intellectual capacity to understand the concept that zero has value.

The research, published in Science Magazine, shows that honey bees are the first invertebrates to prove that they can recognize the numerical order of zero. In passing this test, honey bees have shown the research team that they have a primitive grasp of an abstract mathematical concept.

Honey bees now join an exclusive club of animals that can comprehend this mathematical concept, which includes certain birds, non-human primates, and even grade school children.

Andreas Nieder is an animal researcher who studies the ways in which animals process the concept of nothing. Nieder was not part of this particular study. However, he has weighed in with his views. He stated that the fact honey bees can really understand zero is “quite amazing.”

As recently reported by NPR, Nieder stated that the concept of zero is “essential in the development of both mathematics and science.” Due to its abstract nature, it isn’t an easy concept to grasp.”It is a sort of eccentric uncle in the number family.”

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Past experiments that looked at honey bees suggested that the insects were able to count as they foraged for nectar. These tests revealed that although bees could count landmarks, they were only able to count to four. This realization opened the door to intrigue, and further studies were designed and executed.

A research team comprised of scientists in France and Australia were interested to learn what else, if anything, the insects could do, mathematically speaking. Scarlett Howard, a scientist from RMIT University in Melbourne, lured the honey bees to a wall where they were given an option between two cards.

Each card was printed with a different number of symbols. Howard placed sugar water under the card that contained the least amount of symbols and, eventually, the bees understood the concept of greater or lesser as they flew each time to the card with the least number of symbols.

The bees’ understanding of simple math was indeed impressive, but the team didn’t want to stop there. “The researchers presented the bees with a card that had a single symbol — and a blank card that had nothing on it.”

The true surprise came to Howard when she realized that the bees began to fly to the blank card and not the one that was printed with a symbol, proving that they understood that zero holds a place on the number line. Tech Times disclosed that the honey bees correctly flew to the card containing zero symbols in approximately 60 to 70 percent of their trips to the wall. They were even better at determining the difference between the blank card and those printed with a large number of symbols.

The research team ran numerous controlled experiments to rule out other possible reasons the bees could be attracted to the blank cards. They gathered and recorded data over a three-year period before reaching the conclusion that honey bees do, in fact, understand the concept of zero.