Chair of Behavioral Physiology & Sociobiology

Pfeiffer lab - Neuroethology of spatial orientation

Insects show a broad repertoire of spatial orientation behaviors. This includes simple behaviors, like straight-line orientation, as well as long-range navigation and the ability to return to a nest on a direct path at any time (vector navigation or path integration). All these behaviors are facilitated through sensory information, especially from the visual and olfactory system.

Bees use an internal sky compass, which allows them to orient themselves with respect to the position of the sun. Both the direct sunlight as well as the polarization pattern of the sky and its spectral gradient can be used as reference cues for orientation. Beyond the sky compass, landmarks and the visual panorama play an important role in the orientation of bees.

Our group studies how information from these different reference systems is being used, how they are interconnected and how the different sources of information information are integrated and processed in the brain. Our studies are carried out on honeybees and bumblebees using anatomical, physiological and ethological methods. This includes dye injection into neurons, immunocytochemistry, electrophysiology, and behavioral experiments, particularly regarding the waggle dance.


  • Processing of polarized and unpolarized light stimuli in the brain of bumblebees
  • Effect of wavelength and light intensity on the orientation of honeybees during waggle dances
  • Neuroanatomy of the honeybee central complex
  • Neuroanatomy of the bumblebee brain

Selected publications

  • Held, M., Berz, A., Hensgen, R., Muenz, T. S., Scholl, C., Rössler, W., Homberg, U., and Pfeiffer, K. (2016) Microglomerular Synaptic Complexes in the Sky-Compass Network of the Honeybee Connect Parallel Pathways from the Anterior Optic Tubercle to the Central Complex, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 10, 186.
  • Zeller, M., Held, M., Bender, J., Berz, A., Heinloth, T., Hellfritz, T., and Pfeiffer, K. (2015) Transmedulla Neurons in the Sky Compass Network of the Honeybee (Apis mellifera) are a Possible Site of Circadian Input, PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science 10, 1-25.
  • Bech, M., Homberg, U., and Pfeiffer, K. (2014) Receptive Fields of Locust Brain Neurons Are Matched to Polarization Patterns of the Sky, Current Biology 24, 2124 - 2129.
  • Pfeiffer, K., Negrello, M., and Homberg, U. (2011) Conditional Perception Under Stimulus Ambiguity: Polarization- and Azimuth-Sensitive Neurons in the Locust Brain Are Inhibited by Low Degrees of Polarization, Journal of Neurophysiology, American Physiological Society 105, 28--35.
  • Pfeiffer, K., and Homberg, U. (2007) Coding of Azimuthal Directions via Time-Compensated Combination of Celestial Compass Cues, Current Biology 17, 960 - 965.

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