Mar 10, 2012

Some Honey Bees Have Thrill-Seeking Genetic Predisposition

Johnny Mason, March 10, 2012:

A new study has discovered that some honey bees have a genetic predisposition to thrill seeking, just as some humans do. Is this proof that each bee also has a distinct personality?

“You look at animals and they look really different and they act really different, but when you drill down deeper and look at the genomics, you find these deep commonalities,” said Gene Robinson, an entomologist, geneticist and neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you see this kind of result, you can say that personality is not a human invention.”

We are certainly capable of seeing individual personality traits in dogs, cats, horses and even birds, so why not honey bees? I mean, they are pretty clever creatures, so to dismiss a personality would be quite an insult.

One of the thrill seeking behaviors that the study has uncovered is that some scout bees come back to the hive to inform their sisters about a great source of nectar, but instead of returning to the same flowers over and over, they head off to discover more sources after dispelling the information. One could argue that this is not actually thrill seeking, but just a scout being a scout. Their job is to find as many resources as possible. Seems like a lot of time would be wasted going back to the same place again and again.

To carry out the study, scientists analyzed and compared the genes of the thrill seekers and found more than 1,000 genetic differences than the bees that just went to the same feeders over and over. They also found that the genes and neuro pathways were similar to those known to influence risk taking behavior in other animals, including humans.

Is gambling purely a human vice? Nope. The feel-good chemicals that are released during these activities have been found in other animals, including the bees in this study (make sure to take your cash with you when you leave the apiary). When the researchers manipulated risk-taking genes to increase or decrease their influence, they were able to predict the probability of which bees would become food seeking scouts. This let the team conclude a direct tie between specific genes and novelty-seeking behavior.

Now, it’s difficult to fathom that a honey bee’s personality is as complex or nuanced as that of a human being, or even a dog, but here is some more information to increase the fascination that many have with these little creatures. Myself included.