Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bee Personal

It's not news that people differ in personality. Some of us are born adventurers and risk takers. Other prefer the armchair adventure. It was news to me, though, that honeybees also exhibit a somewhat similar behavioral spectrum.

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are more than cookie-cutter drones, workers, foragers and queens. They might have individual personality differences similar to our own, according to new research. After studying hives—both in the wild and in the lab—and analyzing genetic and biochemical profiles of bees’ brains, researchers have found that some bees, like some humans, seem to be programmed to seek out new experiences, or novelty. Forager bees are in charge of gathering food outside of the hive, but not all of these bees, it seems, are inclined to strike out and go exploring for new flowers. Only a subset of them—some five to 25 percent—actively scout out new pollen sources.

Even scarier is that the behavioral parallels seem to go all the way to the neuro-transmitter level.

Some genetic differences between scouting and non-scouting brains were predicted. “We expected to find some, but the magnitude of the differences was surprising given that both scouts and non-scouts are foragers,” Gene Robinson, director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement. There were many minute genetic differences. But one of the biggest finds were distinct differences in 10 genes that help to control catecholamine, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) signaling—signatures that have also been linked to novelty-seeking and reward behavior in humans. To solidify their finding, the researchers tried changing the levels of these signals in scouting and non-scouting bees to see if they indeed affected their behavior. Non-scouting bees got extra glutamate and octopamine, while dopamine—a reward neurotransmitter—was inhibited in scouting bees. With these signals switched, the non-scouting bees became more inclined to go explore, and without dopamine, the scouting bees were less so.

Like to be (or bee) a Type-A personality for a week or so? Take this pill.