York researchers find memory of honeybee foragers better than nurse bees

A new food reward test has found that foraging honeybees are better at remembering where to find nectar than younger nurse bees, and it has to do with behaviour, not age, a study out of York University has found.

This test could lead to a better understanding of the honeybee’s remarkable ability to learn and communicate spatial information.

Biologist and bee expert
Amro Zayed

Worker honeybees are nurse bees for the first two weeks of life and look after the young brood before becoming foragers in search of pollen and nectar.

“We found that nurses and foragers learn the same, but foragers are able to remember the location of the rewarding flower better than nurses,” said York University biology Associate Professor Amro Zayed, who led the study with PhD candidate Nadejda Tsvetkov.

Tsvetkov designed the new test following a suggestion by York psychology Associate Professor Suzanne MacDonald to try a search task paradigm similar to what she uses to study animal behaviour.

“As researchers, we often rely on established methods because it takes a long time to develop a new test. But if we have new test, we can come up with new experiments that allow us to answer questions we couldn’t ask before,” said Tsvetkov.

(Video below: Testing spatial learning and memory in honeybees at York U)

The tests for measuring spatial learning that existed before were not only very cumbersome, they took a long time to perform and it wasn’t possible to test a lot of bees.

“The biggest innovation here was the development of this test that allows researchers to quickly study hundreds of bees in a controlled environment to see how they learn about space. It’s pretty low tech, but it’s quick, it’s effective,” said Zayed.

For the study, 236 nurses and foragers were individually put into containers with four artificial flowers (Q-Tips), only one of which had sugar water on it. After establishing that foragers had better recall skills, the researchers decided to see if that was because they were older bees or if it had to do with behaviour.

(Video below: Honeybee foragers beat nurse bees on memory test, York U)

The researchers also used a drug – cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) – to put young bees into a “forager” state of mind and found that these bees were also better at remembering the location of the rewarding flower. Behaviour was the defining factor in the better memory skills of foragers, not age.

These tests just wouldn’t have been feasible before.

“The new test gives us a tool where we can get deeper and deeper knowledge into how bees learn and recall spatial information, and hopefully it opens up understanding of the waggle dance,” said Zayed. “The waggle dance is the ultimate recollection of spatial information for honeybees. They’re dancing the direction and the distance of food resources relative to their colony and the sun.”

Next, the researchers are going to use this test to help understand if there’s a genetic component to how bees learn about space and remember spatial information.

The research was published in the journal Insectes Sociaux.