Leonie Lichtenstein, Matthias Lichtenstein, and Johannes Spaethe
Learning visual cues is an essential capability of bees for vital behaviors such as orientation in space and recognition of nest sites, food sources and mating partners. To study learning and memory in bees under controlled conditions, the proboscis extension response (PER) provides a well-established behavioral paradigm. While many studies have used the PER paradigm to test olfactory learning in bees because of its robustness and reproducibility, studies on PER conditioning of visual stimuli are rare. In this study, we designed a new setup to test the learning performance of restrained honey bees and the impact of several parameters: stimulus presentation length, stimulus size (i.e. visual angle) and ambient illumination. Intact honey bee workers could successfully discriminate between two monochromatic lights when the color stimulus was presented for 4, 7 and 10 s before a sugar reward was offered, reaching similar performance levels to those for olfactory conditioning. However, bees did not learn at shorter presentation durations. Similar to free-flying honey bees, harnessed bees were able to associate a visual stimulus with a reward at small visual angles (5 deg) but failed to utilize the chromatic information to discriminate the learned stimulus from a novel color. Finally, ambient light had no effect on acquisition performance. We discuss possible reasons for the distinct differences between olfactory and visual PER conditioning.