Honeybee brain upgrades may help the insects find food

Changes in honeybee neurons may help the insects decode their fellow foragers’ waggle dances

forager bees

Forager bees gather food for the hive. Changes to the shape and behavior of certain nerve cells might help these bees better interpret fellow foragers’ waggle dances, which tell the insects the locations of good food.

Lesley Ingram/bugwood.org (CC BY-NC 3.0)

A honeybee that’s been promoted to forager has upgrades in her nerve cells, too. Vibration-sensing nerve cells, or neurons, are more specialized in bees tasked with finding food compared with younger, inexperienced adult bees, researchers report August 26 in eNeuro.

This neural refinement may help forager bees better sense specific air vibrations produced by their fellow foragers during waggle dances — elaborate routines that share information about food location, distance and quality (SN Online: 1/24/14).

Researchers compared certain neurons in adult bees that had emerged from their cells one to three days earlier to neurons of forager bees, which were older than 10 days. In the foragers, these neurons had more refined shapes, the team found. These vibration-detecting cells, called DL-INT-1 neurons, appear sparser in certain areas, with fewer message-receiving tendrils called dendrites. Refined dendrites may be a sign that these cells are more selective in their connections. And in foragers, these neurons also appear to handle information more efficiently than their counterparts in the young adult bees, experiments with electrodes reveal.

These changes in shape and behavior suggest that in foragers, neurons become adept at decoding vibrations produced by other foragers’ waggle dances, say computational neuroscientist Ajayrama Kumaraswamy of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in Germany and colleagues. But it’s not clear whether foraging experience in the fields or the passage of time itself prompts these refinements.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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