3.1. Introduction

Honey bees rely on their olfactory, visual, gustatory and tactile senses to communicate with their environment. Odours, for example, play an important role in nest mate recognition (Hölldobler and Wilson, 2008; Ratnieks et al., 2011) and in locating food sources (Menzel et al., 1993; Dobson et al., 1996). Not surprisingly, honey bees are capable of discriminating a large variety of different odours (Guerrieri et al., 2005). For orientation and navigation, honey bees rely to a large part on their visual senses (Dyer, 1996; Horridge, 2009). The perception of gustatory stimuli is decisive for evaluating nectar sources by foragers (Seeley et al., 1991) and for the preparation of food by nurse bees (Winston, 1987). Tactile cues are decisive for orientation in the dark hive, for comb building and for locating the way to a food source on a flower (Kevan and Lane, 1985; Winston, 1987).

A honey bee colony depends on the accurate sensory perception of its individuals. Measuring the sensory responsiveness of a bee can therefore not only be indicative of the individual’s physiological state and health but of the state of the entire colony. Diseases or pesticides can obviously affect the vitality of a colony by changing the sensory responsiveness of some of its members. Analysing the sensory responsiveness for different stimulus modalities is therefore an important tool for studying the physiology and behaviour of honey bees.

A number of different assays are available for measuring responsiveness for gustatory, visual and olfactory stimuli in individual honey bees (see Table 1). For testing visual or olfactory responsiveness, bees do not need to be fixed, but for analysing gustatory responsiveness, individuals need to be mounted in holders (see section 2.4.). To reduce the mobility of the bees and to prevent them from stinging, they are usually narcotized (see section 2.2.). Once the bee has adapted to the new situation, different tests for measuring sensory responsiveness can be employed.

Table 1. Experimental designs for measuring sensory responsiveness to gustatory, olfactory and visual stimuli in honey bees.


gustatory responsiveness

olfactory responsiveness

visual responsiveness (phototaxis)

fix bee in holder




devices needed

syringes with sucrose solutions of different concentrations

olfactometer, i.e. an arena which allows observation of the bee's behaviour towards odorant sources of different intensities; system for continuously removing air (i.e. exhaust)

dark arena which can be illuminated by LEDs of different intensities; infrared illumination, infrared-sensitive camera which can be mounted on the arena

parameters to be measured

occurrence of proboscis extension when the antennae are stimulated with different sucrose solutions

time a bee spends in an odour-containing arm

time a bee needs for reaching a light source