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Honey bee see . . . honey bee do?

Training a dog is hard enough, so just imagine some of the tricks you would have to use to train a honey bee. Despite the difficulties, Scott Dobrin and Susan Fahrbach at Wake Forest University in North Carolina successfully trained honeybees to respond to colored lights for a tasty sucrose treat, reported in the recent PLoS ONE publication “Visual Associative Learning in Restrained Honey Bees with Intact Antennae.”

One of the most interesting parts of this paper is the experimental apparatus itself, which involves immobilizing a honey bee in a drinking straw, with two pins on either side of the neck to create a yoke-like structure. Previously, most similar experiments had used a full collar, typically made of duct tape, to harness the bees, which Dobrin and Fahrbach propose may be more damaging to the bees and potentially bias the results.

With their novel set-up, the authors were set to investigate the role of antennae in training honey bees to respond to visual cues.

Honey bees instinctually extend their proboscis (sort of like a long tongue) when their antennae are presented with a sweet solution. Researchers had previously trained honey bees to extend their proboscis in response to odors, but whether they could be trained similarly with visual cues remained a topic of debate. Multiple studies showed that they only learned to respond to visual cues if their antennae were removed – unless the visual stimulus was also paired with an odor.

Dobrin and Fahrbach wanted to resolve this discrepancy, and with their gentler set-up, they showed that honey bees could be trained to respond to visual learning tasks even with their antennae intact, in contrast to earlier results.

Interestingly, they found that the younger bees did better the older ones. Maybe the old saying is true – old bees, just like old dogs, can’t learn new tricks.

Citation: Dobrin SE, Fahrbach SE (2012) Visual Associative Learning in Restrained Honey Bees with Intact Antennae. PLoS ONE 7(6): e37666. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037666

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