Humans and bees are more similar than you think

When you look at a honey bee you’re unlikely to see much common ground. Sure, worker bees go about their job with a die-hard level of commitment I wish I could find for any aspect of my life, but I don’t want to be part of a hive-mind mentality living to serve a single entity held above all others. Or, perhaps they’re onto something I’ve not quite realised yet. Either way, I don’t look at them and feel an innate affinity for their ways.

However, researchers have discovered that we have more common ground than meets the eye. In fact, honey bees that consistently fail to respond to social cues have something fundamentally in common with autistic humans. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that genes most closely associated with autism spectrum disorders in humans are found in these socially disinterested honey bees.

If you’re wondering why this is such a big discovery, it goes some way towards uncovering the evolution of social behaviours. It shows that, across the animal kingdom, we share genetic information that could point to how we think and act around others.

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The study observed 246 groups of bees from seven genetically distinct colonies, exposing them to both unfamiliar bees and queen larvae. During this experiment, researchers discovered that a small subset of bees didn’t fall into the expected camps of “highly engaged to moderately engaged”. Instead, these bees were either always energetically responding to both intruders and queen larvae, or totally disinterested in everything that was happening around them.

The team believed that there could be a correlation between the unresponsive bee’s social behaviour and that of humans with autism. The team turned to a list of genes and gene expression profiles associated with autism in humans to see if there were any genetic similarities between honey bees and humans.

“We figured out a way to make an unbiased statistical test that will tell us whether a human gene list and a honey bee gene list overlap more or less than expected by chance,” said Michael Saul, a postdoctoral researcher who led the statistical analysis with statistics professor Sihai D. Zhao.

The results of said test revealed an overlap between unresponsive honey bees’ gene expression profile and genes closely associated with autism in humans. Interestingly, the researchers also discovered that there’s no notable overlap between genes linked to depression, schizophrenia or other mental conditions.

“Our data are telling us that social unresponsiveness does have some common molecular characteristics in these distantly related species,” said Gene Robinson, a University of Illinois entomology professor who led the analysis. “It’s important to point out some caveats. Humans are not big bees and bees are not little humans.

“The social responsiveness depends on context, and is different in the two cases. Autism spectrum disorder is very complex, and unresponsiveness is not the only behaviour associated with it.”

Robinson highlights the fact that, while it’s clear that honey bees have evolved their own social behaviours independently from humans, the genesis for them comes from the same genetic building blocks. It’s one step closer to showing that humans, along with all other forms of life, stemmed from the same origin point.

This honey bee research isn’t proof of a definitive evolutionary link exists, but it’s certainly one step closer to finding an answer.

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