How floral odours are learned inside the bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) nest
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- Molet, M., Chittka, L. & Raine, N.E. Naturwissenschaften (2009) 96: 213. doi:10.1007/s00114-008-0465-x
Recruitment in social insects often involves not only inducing nestmates to leave the nest, but also communicating crucial information about finding profitable food sources. Although bumblebees transmit chemosensory information (floral scent), the transmission mechanism is unknown as mouth-to-mouth fluid transfer (as in honeybees) does not occur. Because recruiting bumblebees release a pheromone in the nest that triggers foraging in previously inactive workers, we tested whether this pheromone helps workers learn currently rewarding floral odours, as found in food social learning in rats. We exposed colonies to artificial recruitment pheromone, paired with anise scent. The pheromone did not facilitate learning of floral scent. However, we found that releasing floral scent in the air of the colony was sufficient to trigger learning and that learning performance was improved when the chemosensory cue was provided in the nectar in honeypots; probably because it guarantees a tighter link between scent and reward, and possibly because gustatory cues are involved in addition to olfaction. Scent learning was maximal when anise-scented nectar was brought into the nest by demonstrator foragers, suggesting that previously unidentified cues provided by successful foragers play an important role in nestmates learning new floral odours.