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Young Naturalist Tests Honeybee Memory Endurance

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Jill kept track of the honeybee groups in her experiment by painting them different colors. 
Photo courtesy of Jill.

Though honeybees are famous for producing honey, they also pollinate agricultural crops. Intrigued by these tiny pollinators, 16-year-old Jill decided to learn more about the role memory and landscape play in honeybee foraging and pollination.

“Honeybee memory is a primary source of honeybee prosperity,” Jill explains in her essay Memory Retention of Landscape Learning in Honeybees, Apis Mellifera, for which she won a 2011 Young Naturalist Award. After researching the importance of landscape memory in honeybees’ ability to forage and return to the hive, Jill conducted an experiment that examined the insects’ long-term memory.

Her study used the “relay landscape learning” method, a model that tests honeybees’ mental endurance by releasing bees at a point near a previous release and tracking their homing rate. Honeybees are more successful at returning to the hive when they are released in a familiar area because they can recognize landmarks that aid their navigation.

Jill differentiated her relay and control groups by painting the bees’ abdomens various colors. Using a hive as a central point, she started the trial by releasing each group 0.8 kilometers away from the hive in opposite directions. A day later, she released the insects from a spot 1.8 kilometers from the hive and repeated this process on the third, sixth, and ninth days of the trial.

The longer the experiment lasted, the more difficulty the bees had returning home, suggesting that their long-term memory deteriorated throughout the experiment. Jill noted a sharp drop-off in long-term memory between the sixth and ninth day of the trial.

By testing honeybees’ landscape memory retention every few years, Jill hypothesizes that scientists will be able to see if bee memory is worsening and research whether the changes are spurred by chemical pesticides. She hopes such research will continue so that honeybees can continue to forage, and in the process, pollinate the nation’s food supply.

The Young Naturalist Awards is a nationwide, science-based research contest for students in grades 7 through 12 presented by the Museum. To learn more and to submit your own project, visit The deadline for the 2012 contest is March 9, 2012.

The Young Naturalist Awards are proudly supported by Alcoa Foundation.