Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 199, Issue 11, pp 981-996

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Parallel processing in the honeybee olfactory pathway: structure, function, and evolution

  • Wolfgang RösslerAffiliated withBehavioral Physiology and Sociobiology (Zoology II), Biozentrum, University of Würzburg Email author 
  • , Martin F. BrillAffiliated withBehavioral Physiology and Sociobiology (Zoology II), Biozentrum, University of Würzburg


Animals face highly complex and dynamic olfactory stimuli in their natural environments, which require fast and reliable olfactory processing. Parallel processing is a common principle of sensory systems supporting this task, for example in visual and auditory systems, but its role in olfaction remained unclear. Studies in the honeybee focused on a dual olfactory pathway. Two sets of projection neurons connect glomeruli in two antennal-lobe hemilobes via lateral and medial tracts in opposite sequence with the mushroom bodies and lateral horn. Comparative studies suggest that this dual-tract circuit represents a unique adaptation in Hymenoptera. Imaging studies indicate that glomeruli in both hemilobes receive redundant sensory input. Recent simultaneous multi-unit recordings from projection neurons of both tracts revealed widely overlapping response profiles strongly indicating parallel olfactory processing. Whereas lateral-tract neurons respond fast with broad (generalistic) profiles, medial-tract neurons are odorant specific and respond slower. In analogy to “what-” and “where” subsystems in visual pathways, this suggests two parallel olfactory subsystems providing “what-” (quality) and “when” (temporal) information. Temporal response properties may support across-tract coincidence coding in higher centers. Parallel olfactory processing likely enhances perception of complex odorant mixtures to decode the diverse and dynamic olfactory world of a social insect.


Antennal lobe Glomeruli Projection neurons Mushroom bodies Multi-unit recording