Saturday, 7 April 2012

Bee Genes May Drive Them to Adventure

Bee Genes May Drive Them to Adventure


Thrill seeking is a behavioral trait that has been identified in humans and other vertebrate groups for many years (University of Illinois 2012). This trait has now been identified for the first time in a non-vertebrate animal. According to an article published in Science Magazine on the 8th March 2012, a study has identified a “novelty-seeking” trait in the honey bee (Apis mellifera) (Ehrenberg 2012). Through an extensive testing procedure, over 7000 bees were divided on the basis of their behavior into scout and non-scout groups, and genetic differences between the groups were identified (Ehrenberg 2012).

The scientists used whole-genome microarray analysis (a technology that allows for the expression levels of thousands of genes to be determined (Computational Biology Branch (CBB) 2007)) and polymerase chain reaction (a quick amplification of one or many DNA molecules (Campbell et al. 2006)) to identify these genetic differences between the novelty-seeking, scouting bees (food-scouts or nest-scouts) and the novelty-avoiding, non-scouting bees (Liang et al. 2012). Over 1000 genetic differences were found, the most significant being that genes producing the neurotransmitters catecholamine, glutamate, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) and dopamine were expressed differently in scouting and non-scouting bees (Liang et al. 2012). Interestingly, these are the same neurotransmitters associated with thrill seeking in humans (Ehrenberg 2012). The roles, characteristics and effects of these neurotransmitters are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Characteristics of neurotransmitters associated with novelty-seeking behavior (Boeree 2009; Kobayashi 2001; Inglis-Arkell 2012)
Effect on Honey Bees
Responsible for central nervous system (CNS) functions including motor control, cognition, emotion, memory processing and endocrine modulation
Increased novelty-seeking behavior
Inhibitory transmitter (blocking neuron firing at specific receptor sites)
Strongly associated with reward mechanisms in the brain
Increased novelty-seeking behavior
Inhibitory transmitter (blocking excitatory (arousing) neurotransmitters that produce anxiety)
Deficiency produces various anxiety disorders.

Most common neurotransmitter
Responsible for memory
Toxic in excess amounts
Decreasing amount decreased novelty-seeking behavior

According to Liang et al. (2012), the behavioral traits of novelty-seeking and novelty-avoiding in bees are related to the relative proportions of these neurotransmitters which in turn are regulated by the expression of genetic material. While other factors such as food availability and colony conditions may influence the extent of novelty-seeking and novelty-avoiding behaviors, it has been identified that the abundance of each of these behavior-moderating chemicals is directly, but not exclusively, related to the expression of the genes coding for them (Liang et al. 2012). Overall, an individual honey bees’ tendency towards being a scout or non-scout, or novelty-seeking or novelty-avoiding, is due mainly to the genetic material it contains. Furthermore, the genes responsible for the production of these chemicals are the same as those in humans despite the fact that these two species have evolved separately.

In conclusion, the recent discovery of genetically linked behavioral traits in honey bees extends the prevalent view that behavioral traits in vertebrates are produced by the expression of genetic material. There is now evidence that insect behavior is also determined in this way through the expression of similar parts of the genome. This study marks the first time that novelty-seeking and novelty-avoiding behaviors have been identified and examined in insects (Ehrenberg 2012), and is likely to lead into further research in this very interesting area of genetics.       


Boeree, GC 2009, Neurotransmitters, General Psychology, viewed 17 March 2012, <>

Campbell, NA, Reece, JB, Meyers, N 2006, Biology, 7th edition, Pearson Education Australia, Australia

Computational Biology Branch (CBB) 2007, Microarrays: Chipping Away at the Mysteries of Science and Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, viewed 17 March 2012,

Ehrenberg, R 2012, Bee genes may drive them to adventure, Science News, viewed 12 March 2012, <>

Inglis-Arkell, E 2012, Bees have personalities and we can change them, io9, viewed 21 March 2012, <>    

Kobayashi, K 2001, ‘Role of catecholamine signaling in brain and nervous system functions: new insights from mouse molecular genetic study’, NCBI, pp. 115-121, viewed 17 March 2012, <>

Liang, ZS, Nguyen, T, Mattila, HR, Rodriguez-Zas, SL, Seeley, TD, and Robinson, GE 2012, ‘Molecular Determinants of Scouting Behavior in Honey Bees’, American Association for the Advancement of Science, vol. 335, no. 6073, pp. 1225-1228, viewed 17 March 2012, <>

University of Illinois 2012, Insects Have ‘Personalities’ Too, Research on Novelty-Seeking Honey Bees Indicates’, Science Daily, viewed 16 March 2012, <>

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