Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Shaken bees take heed

Many animals appear to become pessimistic about the future after suffering from negative experiences.  Newcastle University researchers led by Geraldine Wright have now extended that group of despondent creatures to include honeybees.

Bees were trained to associate one odor with a sweet reward and another with the unpleasantly bitter taste of quinine.  Frankly, just the fact that bees can be trained at all is interesting in and of itself.  In any case, if the bee were interested in what might be advertised by the odor, she would extend her mouthparts and try a sample. 

Next, some of the bees were subjected to the violent shaking reminiscent of a large animal attacking the hive.  Finally, the bees were presented with new odors that could have been connected to either sweet treat or bitter quinine.  The shaken bees were much more reluctant to give the novel odors a try.  They also had lower levels of dopamine and serotonin.  Again, who knew bees even had dopamine or serotonin?

Clearly, the shaken bees were more cautious than those that had not just come off a bad experience.  I’m not sure I would take it to the extreme of the authors, who seem to be suggesting that the bees not only display pessimism and agitation, but that:
In terms of what we are able to measure, a shaken honeybee is no less 'anxious' than a lonely dog or a rat in a barren cage.
Personally, I’m not convinced that greater prudence necessarily equates with anxiety.  And even if the two are often connected in vertebrates, that doesn’t mean that bees also have those sensations.  Still, it’s apparent that bees are surprisingly intelligent and complex.