A memorable meal for honey bees

November 2007

Animals possess the ability to assess food quality using their sense of taste and using information about the way they feel after eating food. In this article Dr Geraldine Wright, working with colleagues in Arizona and Ohio State Universities, describes a series of experiments which investigate the extent to which a honey bee’s ability to assess food quality affects its ability to remember odours associated with food. When the taste receptors on a honey bee’s antenna come into contact with a stimulating substance, such as sucrose, the honey bee will reflexively extend its mouthparts (proboscis) to search for the stimulating solution. A honey bee also has taste receptors on its proboscis which allow it to taste the food it ingests. If an odour is given at the same time (paired) with stimulation of the taste receptors on either the antenna or proboscis, a honey bee can learn to perform the reflex extension of the proboscis when stimulated with the odour. Using this conditioning technique, the group trained honey bees to learn to associate odours with stimulation of their taste receptors in three different ways: if their antennae were stimulated; if their proboscis was stimulated; or if both antennae and proboscis were stimulated. Honey bees could learn to associate odours with all three types of stimulation, but their ability to remember an odour was strongly affected by whether they had been stimulated on the proboscis. If a honey bee was only stimulated on the antennae, it did not form a long term memory of a particular odour. Results of this study suggest that either stimulation of the proboscis or ingestion of food is necessary for honey bees to form long-term memories about their food. 

Olfactory memory formation and the influence of reward pathway during appetitive learning by honey bees. Wright GA, Mustard JA, Kottcamp SM, Smith BH (2007) Journal of Experimental Biology 210: 4024-4033 (PubMed abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17981870)  

published on: 20th November 2007