Learning modifies attention during bumblebee visual search

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The role of visual search during bee foraging is relatively understudied compared to the choices made by bees. As bees learn about rewards, we predicted that visual search would be modified to prioritise rewarding flowers. To test this, we ran an experiment testing how bee search differs in the initial and later part of training as they learn about flowers with either higher-or lower-quality rewards. We then ran an experiment to see how this prior training with reward influences their search on a subsequent task with different flowers. We used the time spent inspecting flowers as a measure of attention and found that learning increased attention to rewards and away from distractors. Higher quality rewards led to decreased attention to non-flower regions, but lower quality rewards did not. Prior experience of lower rewards also led to more attention to higher rewards compared to distractors and non-flower regions. Our results suggest that flowers would elicit differences in bee search behaviour depending on the sugar content of their nectar. They also demonstrate the utility of studying visual search and have important implications for understanding the pollination ecology of flowers with different qualities of reward.

Significance Statement

Studies investigating how foraging bees learn about reward typically focus on the choices made by the bees. How bees deploy attention and visual search during foraging is less well studied. We analysed flight videos to characterise visual search as bees learn which flowers are rewarding. We found that learning increases the focus of bees on flower regions. We also found that the quality of the reward a flower offers influences how much bees search in non-flower areas. This means that a flower with lower reward attracts less focussed foraging compared to one with a higher reward. Since flowers do differ in floral reward, this has important implications for how focussed pollinators will be on different flowers. Our approach of looking at search behaviour and attention thus advances our understanding of the cognitive ecology of pollination.

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