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Journal of Experimental Biology partnership with Dryad

Exposure to multiple cholinergic pesticides impairs olfactory learning and memory in honeybees
Sally M. Williamson, Geraldine A. Wright


Pesticides are important agricultural tools often used in combination to avoid resistance in target pest species, but there is growing concern that their widespread use contributes to the decline of pollinator populations. Pollinators perform sophisticated behaviours while foraging that require them to learn and remember floral traits associated with food, but we know relatively little about the way that combined exposure to multiple pesticides affects neural function and behaviour. The experiments reported here show that prolonged exposure to field-realistic concentrations of the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, and the organophosphate acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, coumaphos, and their combination impairs olfactory learning and memory formation in the honeybee. Using a method for classical conditioning of proboscis extension, honeybees were trained in either a massed or spaced conditioning protocol to examine how these pesticides affected performance during learning and short- and long-term memory tasks. We found that bees exposed to imidacloprid, coumaphos, or a combination of these compounds, were less likely to express conditioned proboscis extension towards an odor associated with reward. Bees exposed to imidacloprid were less likely to form a long-term memory, whereas bees exposed to coumaphos were only less likely to respond during the short-term memory test after massed conditioning. Both imidacloprid, coumaphos and a combination of the two compounds impaired the bees' ability to differentiate the conditioned odour from a novel odour during the memory test. Our results demonstrate that exposure to sublethal doses of combined cholinergic pesticides significantly impairs important behaviors involved in foraging, implying that pollinator population decline could be the result of a failure of neural function of bees exposed to pesticides in agricultural landscapes.