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Study reveals genetic basis to novelty-seeking bees

by CIFAR Mar 14 / 12

Leading a team of researchers, CIFAR Advisory Committee member Gene Robinson (University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign) made a further discovery about the genetic basis of behaviour in honey bees.

Last year, the team showed that networks of genes contribute to different bee behaviours, such as foraging or aggression. In the team’s most recent study published in Science, they showed that there is also a molecular difference in the genetic make-up between two behavioural groups of honey bees – scouts, who seek out novelty, and foragers, who never lead the pack.

The research team observed that scouts flew to unknown places to find either new sources of food or nesting sites, and then back to the colony to ‘inform’ the other bees. Rather than enjoy the wealth of their discovery, scouts flew off once again in unchartered directions, leaving it up to other bees, the foragers, to manage the findings. These food scouts exhibited the same behaviour even when the colony was well fed. Showing signs of a similar appetite for adventure, nest-seeking scouts were three times more likely to search for food than foragers. With observation of these ‘personality’ traits in hand, Dr. Robinson and his team strove to understand what molecular differences drive this consistent scouting behaviour in different contexts.

In the lab, the team labeled bees with paint, tracked their behaviour and then compared the genes of the two behavioural groups. Their findings showed that 16 per cent of scout genes were expressed differently from non-scouts. The team also reported “intriguing parallels” between the signalling mechanisms of scout honey bee genes and genes associated with novelty-seeking traits in humans.

This new understanding of what drives honey bee behaviour may help researchers protect them in the future, and it also points to new ideas about the origin of our own personalities – that personality may be rooted much deeper in our genetic code than we thought.