PloS one

Genotypic influence on aversive conditioning in honeybees, using a novel thermal reinforcement procedure.

PMID 24828422


In Pavlovian conditioning, animals learn to associate initially neutral stimuli with positive or negative outcomes, leading to appetitive and aversive learning respectively. The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a prominent invertebrate model for studying both versions of olfactory learning and for unraveling the influence of genotype. As a queen bee mates with about 15 males, her worker offspring belong to as many, genetically-different patrilines. While the genetic dependency of appetitive learning is well established in bees, it is not the case for aversive learning, as a robust protocol was only developed recently. In the original conditioning of the sting extension response (SER), bees learn to associate an odor (conditioned stimulus - CS) with an electric shock (unconditioned stimulus - US). This US is however not a natural stimulus for bees, which may represent a potential caveat for dissecting the genetics underlying aversive learning. We thus first tested heat as a potential new US for SER conditioning. We show that thermal stimulation of several sensory structures on the bee's body triggers the SER, in a temperature-dependent manner. Moreover, heat applied to the antennae, mouthparts or legs is an efficient US for SER conditioning. Then, using microsatellite analysis, we analyzed heat sensitivity and aversive learning performances in ten worker patrilines issued from a naturally inseminated queen. We demonstrate a strong influence of genotype on aversive learning, possibly indicating the existence of a genetic determinism of this capacity. Such determinism could be instrumental for efficient task partitioning within the hive.