Honey Bees Get Navigational Help From A Single Gene
May 30, 2013

Honey Bee Navigation Made Possible Through The Egr Gene

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Before a honey bee ever leaves the hive to forage, they must learn how to navigate a changing landscape and orient themselves in relation to the sun.

A new study from the University of Illinois reveals that a regulatory gene known to be involved in learning and the detection of novelty in vertebrates also energizes the brains of honey bees when they are learning how to find food and bring it home.

The study shows that whenever bees try to find their way around an unfamiliar environment, activity in this gene, known as Egr, quickly increases in a region of the brain known as the mushroom bodies. The researchers say that this gene is the insect equivalent of a transcription factor — which regulates the activity of other genes -  found in mammals.

Increased Egr activity did not occur as a result of exercise, the researchers found, nor to the physical demands of learning to fly or the task of memorizing visual cues. The activity only increased in response to the bees´ exposure to an unfamiliar environment. The researchers even saw an uptick in Egr activity in seasoned foragers when they had to learn how to navigate a new environment.

“This discovery gives us an important lead in figuring out how honey bees are able to navigate so well, with such a tiny brain,” said Gene Robinson, a professor of entomology and neuroscience and director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois. “And finding that it´s Egr, with all that this gene is known to do in vertebrates, provides another demonstration that some of the molecular mechanisms underlying behavioral plasticity are deeply conserved in evolution.”

The findings of this study were published The Journal of Experimental Biology.