Behavioural Flexibility in Bumblebees
Bumblebees are experts at rapidly learning visual discriminations. We are interested in understanding how changes in the environment (e.g. changes in reward contingency) influence previously learned discriminations. In other words, can bumblebees respond flexibly when presented with new information. We study this using reversal tasks, in which animals are trained on a discrimination between two stimuli (e.g. two colours). Once the bee has learned that one colour is rewarded and the other is not we reverse the reward contingencies such that the unrewarded colour is now rewarded and the rewarded colour is unrewarded. We then measure the bees ability to change its behaviour in response the the change in the environment.
Our research has shown that bumblebees can change their behaviour in response to changes in the environment and can respond more quickly to environment changes with experience (e.g. serial reversal learning). We have also proposed a simple cognitive mechanism behind this seemingly complex behavioural flexibility. Our data suggests that when faced with a constantly changing environment bees are highly susceptible to memory error (proactive interference), which allows them to behave flexibly.
Mushroom Bodies and Reversal Learning in Bumblebees
We are currently exploring the relationship between the volume of the mushroom bodies, a part of the insect brain associated with learning, and reversal learning. Our pilot data suggests that larger mushroom bodies, which may facilitate rapid formation of associations, are negatively correlated with behavioural flexibility as measured by the reversal task.
Bumblebee High Speed Footage
In partnership with Wayne Bezner-Kerr we collected some high speed footage of bumblebees foraging on our artificial flowers.