The Robinson Lab

Differences in Performance on a Reversal Learning Test and Division of Labor in Honey Bee Colonies

We studied the association between honey bee (Apis mellifera) division of labor and performance on an olfactory reversal-learning test. Manipulations of colony age structure and flight experience were used to test whether differences in performance are associated with age, current behavioral state, or flight experience. Nurse bees showed significantly faster rates of extinction to a learned odor than did foragers. This difference was associated primarily with differences in behavioral state, rather than age; it was seen when comparing nurses and foragers from typical colonies and normal-age nurses and precocious foragers from single-cohort colonies. Differences in extinction rate were not related to differences in flight experience; there was no difference between foragers and foraging-age bees denied flight experience. These results suggest that changes in learning and memory occur in association with division of labor. We speculate on the possible functional significance of the difference in extinction rate between nurses and foragers.

When not satiated prior to training, there were no differences between foragers and nurse honey bees in the acquisition of an appetitively based conditioned response in an olfactory associative learning assay, but when satiated foragers showed faster acquisition than did nurses. Satiation-related differences between foragers and nurses were more a function of behavioral state than age, because satiated precocious foragers also showed faster acquisition rates than did satiated nurse bees, despite their similar ages. Tests of sucrose responsiveness and retention of conditioned responses indicate that the observed performance differences between nurses and foragers were more likely due to differential sensitivity of sensory and motor processes related to satiation rather than differences in cognitive ability.

Representative Publications

Ben-Shahar Y, Robinson GE (2001) Satiation differentially affects performance in a learning assay by nurse and forager honey bees. J. Comp. Physiol. A 187:891-899. (pdf)

Ben-Shahar Y, Thompson C, Hartz SM, Smith BH, Robinson GE (2000) Differences in performance on a reversal learning test and division of labor in honey bee colonies. Animal Cognition 3:119-125. (pdf)