Background: Foraging behavior in honey bees (Apis mellifera) is a complex phenotype that is regulated by physiological state and social signals. How these factors are integrated at the molecular level to modulate foraging behavior has not been well characterized. The transition of worker bees from nursing to foraging behaviors is mediated by large-scale changes in brain gene expression, which are influenced by pheromones produced by the queen and larvae. Larval pheromones can also stimulate foragers to leave the colony to collect pollen. However, the mechanisms underpinning this rapid behavioral plasticity in foragers that specialize in collecting pollen over nectar, and how larval pheromones impact these different behavioral states, remains to be determined. Here, we investigated the patterns of gene expression related to rapid behavioral plasticity and task allocation among honey bee foragers exposed to two larval pheromones, brood pheromone (BP) and (E)-beta-ocimene (EBO). We hypothesized that both pheromones would alter expression of genes in the brain related to foraging and would differentially impact brain gene expression depending on foraging specialization. Results: Combining data reduction, clustering, and network analysis methods, we found that foraging preference (nectar vs. pollen) and pheromone exposure are each associated with specific brain gene expression profiles. Furthermore, pheromone exposure has a strong transcriptional effect on genes that are preferentially expressed in nectar foragers. Representation factor analysis between our study and previous landmark honey bee transcriptome studies revealed significant overlaps for both pheromone communication and foraging task specialization. Conclusions: Our results suggest that, as social signals, pheromones alter expression patterns of foraging-related genes in the bee's brain to increase pollen foraging at both long and short time scales. These results provide new insights into how social signals and task specialization are potentially integrated at the molecular level, and highlights the possible role that brain gene expression may play in honey bee behavioral plasticity across time scales.
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