Studies of Learned Helplessness in Honey Bees (Apis mellifera ligustica)

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The current study reports 2 experiments investigating learned helplessness in the honey bee (Apis mellifera ligustica). In Experiment 1, we used a traditional escape method but found the bees’ activity levels too high to observe changes due to treatment conditions. The bees were not able to learn in this traditional escape procedure; thus, such procedures may be inappropriate to study learned helplessness in honey bees. In Experiment 2, we used an alternative punishment, or passive avoidance, method to investigate learned helplessness. Using a master and yoked design where bees were trained as either master or yoked and tested as either master or yoked, we found that prior training with unavoidable and inescapable shock in the yoked condition interfered with avoidance and escape behavior in the later master condition. Unlike control bees, learned helplessness bees failed to restrict their movement to the safe compartment following inescapable shock. Unlike learned helplessness studies in other animals, no decrease in general activity was observed. Furthermore, we did not observe a “freezing” response to inescapable aversive stimuli—a phenomenon, thus far, consistently observed in learned helplessness tests with other species. The bees, instead, continued to move back and forth between compartments despite punishment in the incorrect compartment. These findings suggest that, although traditional escape methods may not be suitable, honey bees display learned helplessness in passive avoidance procedures. Thus, regardless of behavioral differences from other species, honey bees can be a unique invertebrate model organism for the study of learned helplessness.

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