Honey bees begin life working in the hive. At ≈3 weeks of age, they shift to visiting flowers to forage for pollen and nectar. Foraging is a complex task associated with enlargement of the mushroom bodies, a brain region important in insects for certain forms of learning and memory. We report here that foraging bees had a larger volume of mushroom body neuropil than did age-matched bees confined to the hive. This result indicates that direct experience of the world outside the hive causes mushroom body neuropil growth in bees. We also show that oral treatment of caged bees with pilocarpine, a muscarinic agonist, induced an increase in the volume of the neuropil similar to that seen after a week of foraging experience. Effects of pilocarpine were blocked by scopolamine, a muscarinic antagonist. Our results suggest that signaling in cholinergic pathways couples experience to structural brain plasticity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)207-211
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 3 2006


  • Acetylcholine
  • Apis mellifera
  • Foraging
  • Mushroom body

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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