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PLoS One. 2010 Oct 15;5(10):e15370. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015370.

Aversive reinforcement improves visual discrimination learning in free-flying honeybees.

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Université de Toulouse, UPS, Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition Animale, Toulouse, France.



Learning and perception of visual stimuli by free-flying honeybees has been shown to vary dramatically depending on the way insects are trained. Fine color discrimination is achieved when both a target and a distractor are present during training (differential conditioning), whilst if the same target is learnt in isolation (absolute conditioning), discrimination is coarse and limited to perceptually dissimilar alternatives. Another way to potentially enhance discrimination is to increase the penalty associated with the distractor. Here we studied whether coupling the distractor with a highly concentrated quinine solution improves color discrimination of both similar and dissimilar colors by free-flying honeybees. As we assumed that quinine acts as an aversive stimulus, we analyzed whether aversion, if any, is based on an aversive sensory input at the gustatory level or on a post-ingestional malaise following quinine feeding.


We show that the presence of a highly concentrated quinine solution (60 mM) acts as an aversive reinforcer promoting rejection of the target associated with it, and improving discrimination of perceptually similar stimuli but not of dissimilar stimuli. Free-flying bees did not use remote cues to detect the presence of quinine solution; the aversive effect exerted by this substance was mediated via a gustatory input, i.e. via a distasteful sensory experience, rather than via a post-ingestional malaise.


The present study supports the hypothesis that aversion conditioning is important for understanding how and what animals perceive and learn. By using this form of conditioning coupled with appetitive conditioning in the framework of a differential conditioning procedure, it is possible to uncover discrimination capabilities that may remain otherwise unsuspected. We show, therefore, that visual discrimination is not an absolute phenomenon but can be modulated by experience.

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