Honey bees are one of the most fascinating and complex social organisms on our planet. Scientists like Gene Robinson research how their genomics play a central role in this behavior and how their environment in turn affects their genes.
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Gene Robinson is the director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, an institute that practices team science within a multi-disciplinary scheme. He’s been studying entomology and different species of bees for over 45 years. In this conversation, he shares some fascinating notes about honey bee behavior with listeners.
His group in the institute in particular looks at their social behavior mechanisms and evolution from a genomics perspective. Interestingly, he says that studies indicate layers of individuality and adaptability in bee society—not only are they not all “marching to the same orders,” they can change behavior depending on what is happening with the colony.
In one study, his lab monitored the entry and exit of the hive and found that a minority of the hive worked as foragers. In addition, a small group within the foragers took on a significant 50% of the work. However, when they removed those power-house foragers, the colony did not collapse. Rather, the other bees “upped their foraging game” and made up for the loss. “So while labor is apportioned, it’s not fixed and there’s flexibility,” adds Robinson.
He describes other remarkable modes of flexibility, from pheromone releasing and withholding to determine maturity rates to how a hive survives a queen loss. Along the way he explains how the history of genomics has rearranged how biologists look at bee behavior and development from transcriptomic studies. In fact, dramatic changes are evident in bee brain gene activity depending on their rearing conditions. Based on these studies, their genome is very sensitive to the environment.
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