Honeybees in a virtual reality environment learn unique combinations of colour and shape
Honeybees arewell-known models for the study of visual learning and memory. Whereas most of our knowledge of learned responses comes from experiments using free-flying bees, a tethered preparation would allow fine-scale control of the visual stimuli as well as accurate characterization of the learned responses. Unfortunately, conditioning procedures using visual stimuli in tethered bees have been limited in their efficacy. In this study, using a novel virtual reality environment and a differential training protocol in tethered walking bees, we show that the majority of honeybees learn visual stimuli, and need only six paired training trials to learn the stimulus. We found that bees readily learn visual stimuli that differ in both shape and colour. However, bees learn certain components over others (colour versus shape), and visual stimuli are learned in a nonadditive manner with the interaction of specific colour and shape combinations being crucial for learned responses. To better understand which components of the visual stimuli the bees learned, the shape–colour association of the stimuli was reversed either during or after training. Results showed that maintaining the visual stimuli in training and testing phases was necessary to elicit visual learning, suggesting that bees learn multiple components of the visual stimuli. Together, our results demonstrate a protocol for visual learning in restrained bees that provides a powerful tool for understanding how components of a visual stimulus elicit learned responses as well as elucidating how visual information is processed in the honeybee brain.