The Interpretive Dance of the Honey Bee

Posted on August 20, 2010


A DNA microarray.

A DNA microarray showing genes turning on/off or regulating more or less. Image via Wikipedia

Epigenetics and current research in genomics is finding out some very interesting stuff. For one thing, the idea that genes are merely a blueprint for how our bodies develop and look has flown completely out the window (no flying bee pun intended there). Instead, genomes are proving to be incredibly dynamic. Genes turn on and off based on impetus from social and environmental conditions. It’s difficult to make sense of genes in unmapped or complex genomes, but the honeybee – a long-time studied social insect – makes a perfect research group.Thanks to things like microarray analysis, biologists can study a whole bunch of genes at a time. Think of it as being able to watch parts of DNA light up or get brighter whenever its in use and turn back off  or get dimmer when it’s not. Gene Robinson, University of Illinois entomology and neuroscience professor, has been studying this. His team of researchers is basically sending honeybees out in search of food down tunnels with different interior design. Some have horizontal stripes and busy patterns, others are vertically striped or have few patterns.

A foraging bee notices the pattern in flight and perceives different patterns as different distances to the food source.  She gets back to the hive where she tells the other foragers where to go using a dance like this shown on a video from PBS.

What the research team noticed was that gene expression was changing based on how far the bees went and what they needed to remember to tell the other bees when they got back to the hive.

Dynamic and ever-changing gene expression – very neat!

Feature Image Credit: Wolfgang Hägele