The importance of experience in the interpretation of conspecific chemical signals
Foraging bumblebees scent mark flowers with hydrocarbon secretions. Several studies have found these scent marks act as a repellent to bee foragers. This was thought to minimize the risk of visiting recently depleted flowers. Some studies, however, have found a reverse, attractive effect of scent marks left on flowers. Do bees mark flowers with different scents, or could the same scent be interpreted differently depending on the bees’ previous experience with reward levels in flowers? We use a simple experimental design to investigate if the scent marks can become attractive when bees forage on artificial flowers that remain rewarding upon the bees’ return after having depleted them. We contrast this with bees trained in the more natural scenario where revisits to recently emptied flowers are unrewarding. The bees’ association between scent mark and reward value was tested with flowers scent marked from the same source. We find that the bees’ experience with the level of reward determines how the scent mark is interpreted: the same scent can act as both an attractant and a repellent. How experience and learning influence the interpretation of the meaning of chemical signals deposited by animals for communication has rarely been investigated.