Dr. Gene Robinson wrote an article in the December 2000 Bee Culture dedicated to the memory of his advisor, Dr. Roger A. Morse. Billed as going “beyond the beehive,” the article outlines a new approach to studying honey bee behavior. It is based on another article published in the American Scientist, Vol. 86: pp. 456-462, 1998 : According to the abstract ” Despite a long history of studying the behavior of honey bees, scientists know rather little the proximate causes behind a bee’s actions.”
Dr. Robinson studies a variety of honey bee characteristics, which range from social to chromosomal factors. For example, he shows that a worker bee’s transition from working as a nurse in the hive to a forager in the field involves increasing levels of so-called juvenile hormone. In addition, he discovered that a region of a honey bee’s brain, called the mushroom bodies, increases in size while worker bees mature, perhaps in response to a bee’s spatial learning from foraging flights.
Finally, Robinson describes ongoing work on genes that affect a honey bee’s rate of maturation. In the end, his work attempts to link the environmental and genetic factors that control a honey bee’s social behavior.” The clock gene’s relation to foraging activity is also part of an increasingly impressive research repertoire.
In a larger context, studying the genes of honey bees (genomics) will also help us understand the social behavior of other creatures, including ourselves, Dr. Robinson contends. It is “abundantly clear” that there are functional parallels between insects and vertebrates for the many genes involved in development of multicellular organisms. Studies in developmental biology, for example, have provided evidence of a gene that plays an important role in the development of the eye of both the fly and the mouse. This is remarkable as the eyes of insects and mammals were never considered related structures and work in different ways. The principal no doubt also applies to social behavior, and so it is reasonable to conclude that some genes identified in bees might also be important in vertebrate social behavior.
This linking of genes and social behavior, Dr. Robinson calls “genomics.” To understand the function of any specific gene, the investigator must be able to manipulate its activity level and/or delete it entirely, Dr. Robinson says. This will be soon possible with many organisms, including honey bees. Thus, genetically modifed honey bees may soon join the litany of other organisms (plants, insects, nematodes, bacteria).
Honey bees are likely to play a large role in sociogenomic study because to understand the influences of nature and nurture, social organisms will be required. Emulating the fierce bee partisanship of most enthusiasts, including Dr. Morse, Dr. Robinson states there is no better creature than the honey bee for this kind of study. He concludes that Dr. Morse would have agreed and been delighted to see honey bees studied from this new perspective.
Following up on this is the Honey Bee Genome Project (HBGP) apprpopriately led by Dr. Robinson and a host of others. This huge effort is the logical attempting to followup on he and Dr. Morse’s ideas and dreams.