Interval timing by an invertebrate, the bumble bee Bombus impatiens

Curr Biol. 2006 Aug 22;16(16):1636-40. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2006.06.064.


Sensitivity to temporal information and the ability to adjust behavior to the temporal structure of the environment should be phylogenetically widespread. Some timing abilities, such as sensitivity to circadian cycles, appear in a wide range of invertebrate and vertebrate taxa [1,2]. Interval timing--sensitivity to the duration of time intervals--has, however, only been shown to occur in vertebrates [3,4]. Insect pollinators make a variety of decisions that would appear to require the ability to estimate elapsed durations. We exposed bumble bees to conditions in which proboscis extension was reinforced after a fixed duration had elapsed or after either of two fixed durations had elapsed. Two groups of bees were trained with a short duration (either 6 s or 12 s) and a long duration (36 s) in separate experimental phases (independent timing groups), whereas two other groups were trained with a short duration (either 6 s or 12 s) and long duration (36 s) always intermixed unpredictably (multiple timing groups). On long intervals, independent timing groups waited longer than mixed timing groups to generate the first response and responded maximally near the end of the interval. Multiple timing groups waited the same amount of time on average before generating the first response on both long and short intervals. On individual trials, multiple timing groups appeared to time either the long duration only or both the short and long durations: most trials were characterized by a single burst of responding that began between the short and long duration values or by two bursts of responding with the first burst bracketing the short value and the second burst beginning in anticipation of the long value. These results show that bumble bees learn to time interval durations and can flexibly time multiple durations simultaneously. The results indicate no phylogenetic divide between vertebrates and invertebrates in interval timing ability.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological
  • Environment*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Time Perception / physiology*