Hive Genetics, Not Individual Traits, Dictate Bee Aggression

Photo shows a gentle Africanized queen (center right) from Puerto Rico, traversing an empty comb with her offspring. (Manuel A. Giannoni Guzmán / Vanderbilt University)

(CN) — Aggression is a strong motivator. Just ask a honeybee.

Alone, a honeybee lazily buzzes through the air and depending on their job title back at the hive, they have their defined social and functional roles that fill out their days.

But anyone who crosses one bee can expect the entire hive to attack. A study published Monday explores how genetics is second to the will of the hive and how aggressive a soldier can be to defend the hive.

The bee colony itself plays a much larger role in how a bee will behave, according to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Africanized bees, sometimes referred to as the “killer bee,” are more aggressive than other honeybees and sting in greater numbers. Their stings are not all that different from other bees, but they tend to swarm more frequently, guard their hives more aggressively and are overall defensive in nature.

It could be said that aggression is written in their DNA.

But researchers from the University of Illinois say the traits of the hive influence even Africanized honeybees’ behavior.

That’s why researchers saw a unique opportunity when they found a population of gentle Africanized honeybees in Puerto Rico. The bees had become more docile than anywhere else in the world when compared to other Africanized bees and much more on par with European honeybees.

Bioinformatics professor and lead research Matthew Hudson from the University of Illinois said an organism’s behaviors are driven in some part by its genetic endowment and not the society it lives in. The bees, it would appear, have refuted that point.

“This is a signal that there may be more to genetics as a whole than we’ve been thinking about,” Hudson said in a statement.

Soldier bees and their behavior play a large role in the overall aggression of the entire hive and that means that despite similarities or differences in their genome sequence, the bees become aggressive as a means to defend their hive.

The most aggressive and least aggressive hives illustrated a parallel in their genomes, as one region played a pivotal role in the gentle versus aggressive switch.

“Mostly these bees’ genomes look like Africanized bees,” Hudson said. “But there was one chunk that looked very European. And the frequency of that European chunk in the hive seems to dictate how gentle that hive is going to be to a large extent.”

An individual bee’s genetic makeup doesn’t influence its aggressive nature, but when thrown into a bee colony with a certain dominating behavior, that one individual reflects its society.

In the beehive, where nurture versus nature go head-to-head, it’s the will of the hive that wins out in the end.

The study shows the influence one bee can have on others and those results may be more well defined because of the type of society they live in where each one has their own individual role.

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