The ability of honey bees to associate multiple cues in different sensory modalities with food plays an important role in their foraging biology. Research has focused on how honey bees learn to associate olfactory and visual cues with rewarding cues, but less is known about how they learn thermal cues. We are interested in such thermal learning, which can be associated with the receipt of nectar and exhibits short term learning dynamics similar to olfactory and visual learning (Hammer, Hata et al. 2009).
The ability of bumble bees to associatively learn that certain flowers provide nectar rewards is essential to their role as pollinators. However, relatively little is known about the learning abilities of bumble bees relative to honey bees, which have a different life cycle (honey bees are perennial, bumble bees are annual), foraging strategies (group, not individual), and degree of social organization (highly social, not social). In conjunction with what is known about honey bee foraging, such bumble bee data would provide a rich source of comparative analyses and enrich our understanding of the roles of life cycle and sociality on the evolution of insect cognition.
We recently developed a new associative learning assay (encapsulation) designed specifically for bumble bees and that enhances their learning relative to the classical technique (harnesses) developed for honey bees. Using this new technique, we have shown that bumble bees possess the memory spacing effect (Toda, Song et al. 2009). Future studies will use encapsulation to determine if learning and memory abilities change during the life cycle of individual worker bumble bees and over the colony life cycle.
A harnessed honey bee (Apis mellifera in the video below) will extend her proboscis (similar to a tongue) if her antenna contacts a sufficiently sweet sugar solution. This is a reflexive response. After testing, the bee is painted on her thorax and then released from the harness to return to the nest
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Hammer TJ, Hata C, Nieh JC (2009) Thermal learning in the honeybee, Apis mellifera. Journal of Experimental Biology 212: 3928-3934
Toda NRT, Song J, Nieh JC (2009) Bumblebees exhibit the memory spacing effect. Naturwissenschaften 96: 1185-1191