Basic Bee-havior

Oh boy, that is a terrible, terrible pun, but once you know what exactly I am talking about, I hope that you will be able to forgive my punning audacity. Because, see, this whole article is about a recent study out in the journal Science that talks about bees and how they behave. And there’s a bonus link to a stewing and brewing science journalism controversy, after the jump.

So this week, Science published an article by Liang et al that looks at the biological determinants of differences in individual bee behavior. The researchers set out to explore whether scouting bees are more “novelty-seeking” than other bees, and if so, is there a molecular basis for this difference. Before I get into the details, let me get the big stuff out of the way: why does it matter?

Well, they studied the honeybee, a crucially important species for humans and Winnie-the-Poohs alike. Furthermore, by understanding the biological basis for some behaviors, scientists can look at their evolutionary history.  That in turn can give us all a better understanding of whether some behaviors are universal across the tree of life, or whether they evolved in a particular species. And lastly, for someone like me, it is just plain cool to think about why bees act the way they do.

So here’s the situation: in the honeybee, scouting bees go out and look for new food sources or new nest sites, whose location they convey to the other honeybees through the use of the famous waggle dance. The other honeybees only go to known food sources and nest sites; they do not explore new territory on their own. This behavioral difference is consistent between different bees. Even when the experimenters changed the context by having nest scouts look for food, the scouting bees kept scouting at higher rates than non-scouting bees, suggesting distinct behavioral types.

As exciting as it is to see consistency in behavior across bee types, the exploration of the molecular pathway is even more exciting.  By looking at the bee’s genes, the researchers found evidence for multiple genes and multiple neurotransmitters being involved in affecting the bee’s behavior. The molecular mechanism that may be influencing the bee behavior is similar to the mechanism in humans, though where that similarity comes from (a shared common ancestor way long ago, evolution creating two separate yet similar mechanisms through convergence, etc.) is unclear.

And now for something completely different! Every so often, I talk about science journalism and science communication. This past week, The Daily Mail really messed up when it published a story about how turning on the light when someone gets up to urinate at night can lead to cancer. In addition to creating a sensationalized, incorrect story, this snafu sheds light on some other issues in science journalism, like drawing too strongly from press releases and agency copy. Ed Yong at Discover Magazine and Ananyo Bhattacharya at the Guardian do a much better job of breaking the situation down than I could, so check them out.

And then, duh, come back here and comment!

5 replies on “Basic Bee-havior”

I’m generally a convergence person when it comes to physical anthropology for a lot of things behavioral/social but. . . I don’t know.

I think that the question of similarities with bees needs more studying done on possible shared ancestors and related decendants- particularly when it comes to primates- before I could really feel comfortable with an opinion on convergence vs shared ancestry.

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