Acute exposure to selenium disrupts associative conditioning and long-term memory recall in honey bees (Apis mellifera)

Christina M. Burden, Christopher Elmore, Kristen R. Hladun, John T. Trumble, Brian Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


A plethora of toxic compounds - including pesticides, heavy metals, and metalloids - have been detected in honey bees (Apis mellifera) and their colonies. One such compound is selenium, which bees are exposed to by consuming nectar and pollen from flowers grown in contaminated areas. Though selenium is lethal at high concentrations, sublethal exposure may also impair honey bees' ability to function normally. Examining the effect of selenium exposure on learning and memory provides a sensitive assay with which to identify sublethal effects on honey bee health and behavior. To determine whether sublethal selenium exposure causes learning and memory deficits, we used proboscis extension reflex conditioning coupled with recall tests 30 min and 24 h post-conditioning. We exposed forager honey bees to a single sublethal dose of selenium, and 3 h later we used an olfactory conditioning assay to train the bees to discriminate between one odor associated with sucrose-reinforcement and a second unreinforced odor. Following conditioning we tested short- and long-term recall of the task. Acute exposure to as little as 1.8 ng of an inorganic form of selenium (sodium selenate) before conditioning caused a reduction in behavioral performance during conditioning. And, exposure to 18 ng of either an inorganic form (sodium selenate) or an organic form (methylseleno- l-cysteine) of selenium caused a reduction in the bees' performance during the long-term recall test. These concentrations of selenium are lower than those found in the nectar of plants grown in selenium-contaminated soil, indicating that even low-grade selenium toxicity produces significant learning and memory impairments. This may reduce foragers' ability to effectively gather resources for the colony or nurse bees' ability to care for and maintain a healthy colony.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-79
Number of pages9
JournalEcotoxicology and Environmental Safety
StatePublished - May 1 2016


  • Honey bee
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Proboscis extension reflex
  • Selenium
  • Toxicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pollution
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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