Honey bees that consistently fail to respond to obvious social cues share something fundamental with autistic humans, researchers report in a new study. Genes most closely associated with autism spectrum disorders in humans are regulated differently in unresponsive honey bees than in their more responsive nest mates, the study found.
The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appear to be unique to genes associated with autism and not to other behavioral disorders in humans. The study offers an early glimpse of the molecular heritage shared across the animal kingdom, the researchers say, and offers tantalizing clues about the evolution of social behavior.
“Some honey bees are more active than others, and some appear indifferent to intruders that threaten the hive. This, in itself, is not unusual,” said University of Illinois entomology professor Gene Robinson, who led the new analysis. “Honey bees take on different roles at different stages of their lifecycle, and not every bee can – or should – function as a guard,” he said.
But when postdoctoral researcher Hagai Shpigler observed that some of those same bees also were unmoved by the presence of a queen larva – a stimulus that typically spurs diligent action in nurse bees – it suggested something unusual was going on, said Robinson, who directs the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the U. of I.