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PLoS One. 2007 Mar 14;2(3):e288.

Aversive learning in honeybees revealed by the olfactory conditioning of the sting extension reflex.

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Research Centre on Animal Cognition, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)-University Paul-Sabatier, Toulouse, France.


Invertebrates have contributed greatly to our understanding of associative learning because they allow learning protocols to be combined with experimental access to the nervous system. The honeybee Apis mellifera constitutes a standard model for the study of appetitive learning and memory since it was shown, almost a century ago, that bees learn to associate different sensory cues with a reward of sugar solution. However, up to now, no study has explored aversive learning in bees in such a way that simultaneous access to its neural bases is granted. Using odorants paired with electric shocks, we conditioned the sting extension reflex, which is exhibited by harnessed bees when subjected to a noxious stimulation. We show that this response can be conditioned so that bees learn to extend their sting in response to the odorant previously punished. Bees also learn to extend the proboscis to one odorant paired with sugar solution and the sting to a different odorant paired with electric shock, thus showing that they can master both appetitive and aversive associations simultaneously. Responding to the appropriate odorant with the appropriate response is possible because two different biogenic amines, octopamine and dopamine subserve appetitive and aversive reinforcement, respectively. While octopamine has been previously shown to substitute for appetitive reinforcement, we demonstrate that blocking of dopaminergic, but not octopaminergic, receptors suppresses aversive learning. Therefore, aversive learning in honeybees can now be accessed both at the behavioral and neural levels, thus opening new research avenues for understanding basic mechanisms of learning and memory.

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