Nature versus nurture in honeybees

One of the most controversial questions in biology is whether behaviour is determined by nature or nurture. A new program has been launched to shed light on this question by analyzing all sources of information relating to the complex society of Apis mellifera, the Western honeybee.

The debate raises ethical questions about the the determination of behaviour in social animals, including humans. The nature side suggests behaviour is determined by inherited genes. The nurture side argues that it depends on environmental factors, such as social interaction. The reality lies somewhere in between: environment affects the way an animal’s genome is expressed. BeeSpace, a system created at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will pursue a deeper understanding of how genes are both inherited and environmentally responsive.

A. mellifera makes an ideal subject for this study. Honeybees have a complex social structure that is highly flexible. Workers demonstrate an age-related division of labour. Each individual assumes many different roles in her lifetime. Both heredity and environment determine what a bee does, and when she does it. These roles are affected by structural changes in the bee’s brain in response to her foraging experience.

The relationship between behaviour and heredity can be analyzed in detail because the honeybee genome has been entirely mapped.

BeeSpace will have implications for other social animals as well, as researchers study social roles that could apply to other organisms. Social interaction with in a hive can even shed light on the way humans interact in an urban environment.

Beyond studying bees as social animals, the system serves as an experiment in informatics. It will include all relevant databases and scientific literature on the social behaviour of honeybees, using new semantic technology to navigate across many sources. The system will involve an international community of biologists who study honeybees and other social organisms, and be accessible to students and educators.

BeeSpace is being funded by a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

For more information on this story, read the news article at ScienceDaily.

Also visit the Institute for Genomic Ecology at UIUC, and the BeeSpace interactive website.

An unrelated website, from Univeristy of Sydney, on honeybee dance behaviour illustrates one way in which the bee genome can be studied. Honeybees have a highly evolved system for communicating the direction and quality of potential food sources. Distance is distinguished by the form of the dance. Different races of the species demonstrate distinct, well-documented dance dialects. The researchers use hybridization crosses between races to see how the genetic component affects dance behaviour.

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2 Comments on “Nature versus nurture in honeybees”

  • John Doll wrote on 30 June, 2009, 10:28

    well.. it’s like I thought!

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