, Volume 41, Issue 6, pp 385-398

Sensori-motor learning and its relevance for task specialization in bumble bees

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Individual bees often restrict their visits to only a few species out of the multitude of available plants. This flower constancy is likely caused by limitations of memory for motor patterns, sensory stimuli, or reward levels. Here we test the implications of sensori-motor learning and memory for flower constancy. Artificial “flowers” with two distinct “morphologies” were used, so that in each flower type, a different motor pattern was needed to reach the nectar. As in natural flowers, these morphological types were associated with sensory signals (blue and yellow color stimuli). Bees which learned only a single task were more efficient in several ways than those which had learned two: they made fewer errors, had shorter flower handling times, took shorter times to correct errors, and transitions between flowers were initially more rapid. For bees which had learned two tasks, performance depended strongly on the training schedule: if each task was learned with blocked trials, the memory for the second appeared to interfere with that for the first. Interference affected only the association between flower signal and motor pattern, not the motor pattern itself. This was not the case if bees were trained for both tasks with alternating trials. In that case, bees rapidly learned both tasks, albeit with worse saturation levels than bees which had learned only one. Bees transferred the experience gained on one task to a second task: their initial performance on the second task was better than their initial performance on the first. On the other hand, performance on the second task in the saturation level (in which bees no longer improve their efficiency) was worse than on the first task (negative transfer). In the saturation phase, performance did not directly depend on switch frequency, but on whether the bee had one or two options in memory. Thus, while bees would become proficient at two tasks more quickly if their acquisition phase included switches, such switches had no measurable effect in the saturation phase. The implications of these findings for foraging are discussed using modern learning theory.

Received: 4 April 1997 / Accepted after revision: 8 August 1997