Alarm substances induce associative social learning in honeybees, Apis mellifera

Erika Dawson, Lars Chittka, Ellouise Leadbeater

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Alarm signals are widespread in the social insects. It is commonly accepted that such signals produce adaptive short-term aggressive or aversive responses in conspecifics, but the possibility that they could also lead to social learning about predator identity has not yet been addressed. Here we demonstrated that responses to alarm volatiles can lead to social learning about asocial stimuli in honeybees. Using a phototactic assay, we initially confirmed previous findings that alarm volatiles deter individuals from approaching a coloured light. When the same individuals subsequently experienced the coloured light in the absence of alarm volatiles, the same deterrent effect was observed, suggesting that responses to alarm volatiles became conditioned to the coloured light. Previous experience with the light in the absence of alarm cues did not induce this response, nor did previous association of alarm cues with a different coloured light. Our findings highlight that social insect signals can lead to social learning through a simple yet powerful associative mechanism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17–22
Number of pages6
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Early online date17 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016

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