June 8 (UPI) -- Bees understand numerical zero, new research shows, making them the first insect to showcase their comprehension of the mathematical subject.
Scientists in France began their research by training bees to sip sugar water from a series of platforms paired with images. The images featured different numbers of dots. Researchers used the setup to teach the bees inequality relationships, the concepts of "less than" and "greater than."
Drinking platforms paired with images of larger numbers of dots featured a bitter quinine solution, while the platform outfitted with images of smaller numbers of dots featured the simple syrup.
Tests showed the bees were able to learn to approach whichever platform showcased the image with fewest number of dots. In other words, the bees learned to associate the quality of less than with a sugary reward.
Because scientists switched around the positions of the different platforms and images, they were able to confirm the bess understand the concepts of less than and great than and weren't simply mimicking a pattern.
Finally, scientists presented the now-trained bees with the choice between a blank image and image featuring dots. The bees correct approached the drinking platform beneath the blank image.
The results -- detailed in the journal Science -- prove bees understand the concept of zero.
"This finding suggests that such an understanding has evolved independently in distantly related species that deal with complexity in their environments, and that it may be more widespread than previously appreciated," researchers wrote in their paper. "Bees demonstrated an understanding that parallels animals such as the African grey parrot, nonhuman primates, and even preschool children."