At first glance, studying a hive of bees seems to have little relevance to why we buzz around like we do. Further examination, however, shows the behavior of this insect to be quite relevant. The 50,000 honeybees—constituting one complex colony—practice several noteworthy behaviors that can be observed and measured at the genetic level while the organism remains in its natural environment.
Bees, like humans, are social creatures with a large number of individuals cooperating for the betterment of the whole. Unlike humans, however, an individual bee is born into a predetermined role. This role will then change several times over the course of a bee’s life, from nurse to forager to guard. These behavioral transformations, spurred by age and the immediate needs of the hive, allow the colony to constantly reorganize itself in order to thrive.
Are these changes in bee profession predetermined by genetics, that is, inherited? Or, is the bee educated to move up the company ladder by the queen and her minions? It’s undoubtedly a combination of both, but the relative impact of each is unknown. This highly debated question of “nature versus nurture” connects us to these insect counterparts, making the University of Illinois BeeSpace Project of interest to all who are wondering how much of behavior is determined by genes and how much by environmental factors, including learning and experience.
Using the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) the researchers hope to create the first complete analysis of an animal’s normal behavior at the level of gene expression. With the recently sequenced bee genome serving as the blueprint of a bee’s DNA, BeeSpace scientists will determine which genes are active in a bee’s brain at different ages while playing particular roles in the hive.
These data, combined with information from more than 40 million scientific articles and hundreds of years of natural history observations recorded by beekeepers and other bee experts, will be evaluated in an electronic environment designed to accommodate concepts in biology, physiology, medicine and behavior. The system will be openly accessible via the Internet, allowing for a true collaborative effort to tackle the “brain and behavior” question while making use of the wealth of scattered scientific information on bees.
This two-pronged approach will serve as proof of principle for computer scientists and engineers striving to take the Internet to the next level—coined the Interspace. The Interspace will allow users to cross-correlate information from multiple sources with a concept-based approach, bridging virtual spaces to interconnect information just as the Internet currently connects objects to transmit data. Making sense of the wealth of scattered information available to answer a certain complex biological question will be a marvelous first step in our understanding of the old adage, “to be or not to be?”