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Queen bee dumbs down her workers

July 21, 2007|Amber Dance | Times Staff Writer

A queen bee needs to keep her subjects calm and quiet, and she does so by secreting a scent that prevents worker bees from learning, according to new research.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, found that a component in the queen's pheromone inhibits the sterile worker bees' ability to learn from negative experiences. The active scent element is similar to the brain compound dopamine, which is involved in learning and memory in humans and insects.

By preventing aversive learning, the queen ensures that her youngest offspring will stay in the hive and not use their stingers, even if something unpleasant occurs.

"Aversive learning is when the animal makes an association between a particular odor and a nasty experience," said senior study author Alison Mercer, a neurobiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

The "nasty experience" in the study was a mild electric shock, accompanied by a particular smell.

Honeybees separated from the queen extended their stingers when they detected the odor. But young honeybees exposed to the queen's pheromone did not respond. The young bees that groom the queen are exposed to high levels of her pheromone.

Older bees somehow become capable of aversive learning -- otherwise they would have little chance for survival as they forage for food outside the hive.

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