A role for octopamine in honey bee division of labor

David J. Schulz, Andrew B. Barron, Gene E. Robinson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

119 Citations (Scopus)


Efficient division of labor is one of the main reasons for the success of the social insects. In honey bees the division of labor is principally achieved by workers changing tasks as they age. Typically, young adult bees perform a series of tasks within the colony before ultimately making the transition to foraging outside the hive for resources. This lifelong behavioral development is a well-characterized example of naturally occurring behavioral plasticity, but its neural bases are not well understood. Two techniques were used to assess the role of biogenic amines in the transition from in-hive work to foraging, which is the most dramatic and obvious transition in honey bee behavioral development. First, associations between amines and tasks were determined by measuring the levels of amines in dissected regions of individual bee brains using HPLC analysis. Second, colonies were orally treated with biogenic amines and effects on the onset of foraging were observed. Octopamine concentration in the antennal lobes of the bee brain was most reliably associated with task: high in foragers and low in nurses regardless of age. In contrast, octopamine in the mushroom bodies, a neighboring neuropil, was associated with age and not behavior, indicating independent modulation of octopamine in these two brain regions. Treating colonies with octopamine resulted in an earlier onset of foraging in young bees. In addition, octopamine levels were not elevated by non-foraging flight, but were already high on return from the first successful foraging trip and subsequently remained high, showing no further change with foraging experience. This observation suggests that octopamine becomes elevated in the antennal lobes in anticipation of foraging and is involved in the release and maintenance of the foraging state. Foraging itself, however, does not modulate octopamine levels. Behaviorally related changes in octopamine are modulated by juvenile hormone, which has also been implicated in the control of honey bee division of labor. Treatment with the juvenile hormone analog methoprene elevated octopamine and octopamine treatment 'rescued' the delay in behavioral development caused by experimentally depleting juvenile hormone in bees. Although the pathways linking juvenile hormone and octopamine are presently unknown, it is clear that octopamine acts 'downstream' of juvenile hormone to influence behavior and that juvenile hormone modulates brain octopamine levels. A working hypothesis is that octopamine acts as an activator of foraging by modulating responsiveness to foraging-related stimuli. This is supported by the finding that octopamine treatment increased the response of bees to brood pheromone, a stimulator of foraging activity. Establishing a role for octopamine in honey bee behavioral development is a first step in understanding the neural bases of this example of naturally occurring, socially mediated, behavioral plasticity. The next level of analysis will be to determine precisely where and how octopamine acts in the nervous system to coordinate this complex social behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)350-359
Number of pages10
JournalBrain, Behavior and Evolution
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Apis mellifera
  • Behavioral development
  • Biogenic amines
  • Division of labor
  • Honey bees
  • Juvenile hormone
  • Neuromodulation
  • Octopamine
  • Response thresholds


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