Diminishing Returns: The Influence of Experience and Environment on Time-Memory Extinction in Honey Bee Foragers

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Classical experiments demonstrated that honey bee foragers trained to collect food at virtually any time of day will return to that food source on subsequent days with a remarkable degree of temporal accuracy. This versatile time-memory, based on an endogenous circadian clock, presumably enables foragers to schedule their reconnaissance flights to best take advantage of the daily rhythms of nectar and pollen availability in different species of flowers. It is commonly believed that the time-memory rapidly extinguishes if not reinforced daily, thus enabling foragers to switch quickly from relatively poor sources to more productive ones. On the other hand, it is also commonly thought that extinction of the time-memory is slow enough to permit foragers to 'remember' the food source over a day or two of bad weather. What exactly is the time-course of time-memory extinction? In a series of field experiments, we determined that the level of food-anticipatory activity (FAA) directed at a food source is not rapidly extinguished and, furthermore, the time-course of extinction is dependent upon the amount of experience accumulated by the forager at that source. We also found that FAA is prolonged in response to inclement weather, indicating that time-memory extinction is not a simple decay function but is responsive to environmental changes. These results provide insights into the adaptability of FAA under natural conditions.