A new study reveals that changes in gene expression in the brain of the honeybee in response to an immediate threat have much in common with more long-term and even evolutionary differences in honeybee aggression. The findings lend support to the idea that nurture (an organism's environment) may ultimately influence nature (its genetic inheritance).
The study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used microarray analysis to measure changes in gene expression in the brains of European honeybees and much more aggressive Africanized honeybees. Microarrays offer a snapshot of the thousands of genes that are activated at a given point in time. By comparing microarrays of bees in different environmental and social conditions, the researchers were able to look for patterns of gene expression that coincided with aggression.
Honeybees respond aggressively only if their hive is disturbed. But when disturbed they mount a vigorous defense--the all-too-familiar bee sting. The researchers observed that changes that occur in the brain of a European honeybee after it is exposed to an alarm pheromone (i.e., a chemical signal that the hive is in danger) look a lot like the more gradual changes that occur over the bee's lifetime. (Old bees are more aggressive than young bees.)