Omega-3 deficiency impairs honey bee learning

Yael Arien, Arnon Dag, Shlomi Zarchin, Tania Masci, Sharoni Shafir*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

110 Scopus citations


Deficiency in essential omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), particularly the long-chain form of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), has been linked to health problems in mammals, including many mental disorders and reduced cognitive performance. Insects have very low long-chain PUFA concentrations, and the effect of omega-3 deficiency on cognition in insects has not been studied. We show a low omega-6:3 ratio of pollen collected by honey bee colonies in heterogenous landscapes and in many hand-collected pollens that we analyzed. We identified Eucalyptus as an important bee-forage plant particularly poor in omega-3 and high in the omega-6:3 ratio. We tested the effect of dietary omega-3 deficiency on olfactory and tactile associative learning of the economically highly valued honey bee. Bees fed either of two omega-3-poor diets, or Eucalyptus pollen, showed greatly reduced learning abilities in conditioned proboscis-extension assays compared with those fed omega-3-rich diets, or omega-3-rich pollen mixture. The effect on performance was not due to reduced sucrose sensitivity. Omega-3 deficiency also led to smaller hypopharyngeal glands. Bee brains contained high omega-3 concentrations, which were only slightly affected by diet, suggesting additional peripheral effects on learning. The shift from a low to high omega-6:3 ratio in the Western human diet is deemed a primary cause of many diseases and reduced mental health. A similar shift seems to be occurring in bee forage, possibly an important factor in colony declines. Our study shows the detrimental effect on cognitive performance of omega-3 deficiency in a nonmammal.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)15761-15766
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number51
StatePublished - 22 Dec 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank HaimKalev for apicultural and field assistance, Maor Zavitan for laboratory assistance, Sameer Mabjeesh for protein analyses, and Geraldine Wright and Sue Nicolson for helpful comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by Israel Science Foundation Grant 1456/10.


  • Alpha-linolenic acid
  • Apis mellifera
  • Associative conditioning
  • Fatty acids
  • Proboscis extension response


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