Data from honey bees sweeten science

University scientists have analyzed data extracted from the behavioral study of honey bees to sequence their genes, which will lead to further studies on human social behavior.

Honey bees abide by a certain set of guidelines that dictate their social behavior within a colony. Honey bees living in a hive play different roles in ensuring the productive outcome of a community. Certain honey bees defend the colony while others are responsible for foraging or nursing.

The different functions honey bees perform indicate highly sophisticated social behavior; they represent pinnacles of a social evolution. Saurabh Sinha, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science who characterized the project as “a dream come true,” said that no other insects demonstrate behavior so similar to humans.

Honey-bee behavior is not as complex as human social behavior, but it is easier to study. Humans have 20,000 genes, and researchers still have not been able to determine which are responsible for behavior. Honey bees are important because they follow social rules and switch roles depending on the needs in their society, much like humans.

Certain aspects of human behavior may be found through the study of honey bees, but researchers and scientists are not trying to forge a strong connection between the two.

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“That’s much too big of a jump,” said Professor Gene E. Robinson of the Department of Entomology.

But Hugh M. Robertson, another entomology professor, said that “there is a very indirect connection” between honey bees and humans.

The bee genome project has sequenced their DNA and completed a genetic blueprint. But the outcome of the project is not going to affect humans for a while. The project took five years and had scientists from all over the world working in government labs together to sequence the genome in honey bees.

The project, which was funded by the National Institute of Health, was estimated to cost around $15 million.

The genome project gives researchers insight into honey bee behavior, specifically their communication system, social organization and social foraging.

Sequencing the genome is used to analyze which genes are prevalent and how these genes are accountable for specific social behaviors.

Robertson said the honey bee is the fourth insect to have its genome sequenced, following the fruit fly, the African mosquito and the silkworm. The genome project is an “exciting new phase in socio-genomics,” Robinson said.

Studying the genome of honey bees will point researchers in the right direction to dissecting the genes in humans.

Robinson said more information would be needed to do that.