Hygienic behavior in the honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) and the modulatory role of octopamine

Marla Spivak, Rebecca Masterman, Rocco Ross, Karen A Mesce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

112 Scopus citations


Honey bees, Apis mellifera, which perform hygienic behavior, quickly detect, uncap and remove diseased brood from the nest. This behavior, performed by bees 15-20 days old and prior to foraging, is likely mediated by olfactory cues. Because the neuromodulator octopamine (OA) plays a pivotal role in olfactory-based behaviors of honey bees, we examined whether bees bred for hygienic and nonhygienic behavior differed with regard to their OA expression and physiology. We compared the staining intensity of octopamine-immunoreactive (OA-ir) neurons in the deutocerebral region of the brain, medial to the antennal lobes, between hygienic and nonhygienic bees (based on genotype and phenotype). We also tested how the olfactory responses of the two lines, based on electroantennograms (EAGs), were affected by oral administration of OA and of epinastine, a highly specific OA antagonist. Our results revealed that bees expressing hygienic behavior (irrespective of genotype) possessed OA-ir neurons that exhibited more intense labeling than same-aged bees not performing the behavior. In bees bred for nonhygienic behavior, OA significantly increased the EAG response to low concentrations of diseased brood odor. Conversely, in bees bred for hygienic behavior, epinastine significantly reduced the magnitude of the EAG response, a reduction not observed in nonhygienic bees. Our results provide two lines of evidence that OA has the potential to facilitate the detection and response of honey bees to diseased brood. We discuss the contributions of OA for behavioral shaping and its ability to bias the nervous system to express one form of behavior over another.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)341-354
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Neurobiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2003


  • Antennal lobe
  • Biogenic amines
  • Electroantennogram
  • Epinastine
  • Olfaction

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