Bees Seek Adventure, Studies Show
March 11, 2012

Bees Seek Adventure, Studies Show

Humans aren´t the only species on Planet Earth to seek thrills and adventure. A new study posted in the journal Science explains that honey bees are just as likely as human beings to seek an adrenaline high. Molecular pathways in the brain that are often associated with thrill-seeking were found in honey bees as well.

Often thought to be diligent in roles given to them by the hive, this new study shows that honey bees may have wants and desires other than serving the queen of the hive.

Gene Robinson, entomology professor and director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign led the study that suggests that honey bees may or may not enjoy the tasks given to them by the hive. The study shows that bees may have a personality, and therefore, a preference in how they spend their lifetime.

In the study, Robinson says “In humans, differences in novelty-seeking are a component of personality. Could insects also have personalities?”

To prove this hypothesis, Robinson and other researchers from Wellesley College and Cornell University studied two types of behavior that looked like thrill-seeking in the honey bees: scouting for food and scouting for nests.

When a bee colony outgrows its nest, the hive divides and the bees begin to look for a new home. During this process, only 5 percent of the bees will begin hunting for a suitable home. These bees are called nest scouts, and research has shown that these bees are more than 3 times more likely to seek this kind of thrill again and become food scouts.

“There is a gold standard for personality research and that is if you show the same tendency in different contexts, then that can be called a personality trait,” Robinson said. Not only do certain bees exhibit signs of novelty-seeking, he said, but their willingness or eagerness to “go the extra mile” can be vital to the life of the hive.

Using microarray analysis, the research team studied the brains of the food and nest scouting bees against the non-scouting bees. This research showed that there are thousands of genetic differences between the brains of the scouting bees and the non-scouting bees. The research team was shocked by the results.

“We expected to find some, but the magnitude of the differences was surprising given that both scouts and non-scouts are foragers,” Robinson said.

With the differences discovered between the two types of bees, the researchers then went on to test their theories. By singling out the specific genes found in scouting bees as opposed to non-scouters, the scientists were able to increase and decrease the amount of these genes in other bees. In order to test whether non scouting bees could be convinced otherwise, the researchers treated the bees to increase or decrease specific chemicals in the brain linked to thrill-seeking.

The non-scouting bees began to exhibit scouting behavior, despite the fact they had never scouted before. Alternatively, scouting bees who underwent similar treatment stopped scouting and exhibited behavior of other non-scouting bees.

“Our results say that novelty-seeking in humans and other vertebrates has parallels in an insect,” Robinson said. “One can see the same sort of consistent behavioral differences and molecular underpinnings.”

These findings suggest the evolution of behavior relies on the different molecular pathways carved out by genetic coding.

“It looks like the same molecular pathways have been engaged repeatedly in evolution to give rise to individual differences in novelty-seeking,” Robinson said.

These researchers believe that the same sort of genetic coding is shared between animals, humans, and insects.


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