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Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are well known for their excellent learning abilities. Although most age groups learn quickly to associate an odor with a sucrose reward, newly emerged bees and old foragers often perform poorly. For a long time, the reason for the poor learning performance of these age groups was unclear. We show that reduced sensitivity for sucrose is the cause for poor associative learning in newly emerged bees but not in old foragers. By increasing the sensitivity for sucrose through octopamine, we selectively improved the learning performance of insensitive newly emerged bees. Interestingly, the learning performance of foragers experiencing the same treatment remained low, despite the observed increase in sensitivity for the reward. We thus demonstrate that increasing sensitivity for the reward can improve the associative learning performance of bees when they are young but not when they had foraged for a long time. Importantly, octopamine can have very different effects on bees, depending on their initial sensory sensitivity. These differential effects of octopamine have important consequences for interpreting the action of biogenic amines on insect behavior.

Citation

Andreas Behrends, Ricarda Scheiner. Octopamine improves learning in newly emerged bees but not in old foragers. The Journal of experimental biology. 2012 Apr 1;215(Pt 7):1076-83

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PMID: 22399652

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