Honeybees Are Actually Mathematicians

Grace Higgins | February 9th, 2019

Honeybees are one of the small numbers of animals that can count and have an understanding of what zero means. They understand the concept of nothing, much like humans or dolphins can. In fact, these little insects are able to grasp that “nothing” is the opposite of “something” and they also know that the number zero is on the low end of the numerical sphere.

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A study published in the journal Science researched that honey bees could count up to four objects and understood the notion of zero. Not exactly mathematicians but way more advanced than most animals. It is actually the first research of its kind that shows insects can deal with abstracts concepts. To understand if bumblebees and honeybees could understand the concept of nothingness, scientist lured free-flying bees to a screen that had white cards on them.

Each card featured two to five different types of dark shapes. The researchers awarded some honey bees with sweet nectar for flying onto a card with a few items and some with a card that featured many items. After a couple of days of training, the researchers also introduced cards that had no items on them at all.

And the bees were able to consistently recognize the cards that had no shapes or objects on them at all. In fact, they were able to make them out even better when the blank cards were shown alongside cards with four or five items.

This means that the honeybees knew and understood which cards had fewer items on and which ones had more on. And understanding that this sort of numerical scale is very important to understand the concept of zero. One thing that remains unclear to the scientists is if they understand this from birth or if they learn it through training with other bees. It is definitely something that can give them an advantage when navigating the wild & recognizing different types of flowers.

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