Galleons, a little over a week ago, I read an article about honey bees and had a brilliant idea. Of course, my utter lack of artistic ability has rendered this idea nothing more than a source of frustration for me since its creation. So, because I am unable to bring you the visual representation I wish I could, you’ll have to make do with my descriptions and your imaginations.
It seems that honey bees might have much more variable personalities than we ever realized. We tend to think of bee hives as highly regimented units, with groups of bees carrying out very specific tasks. Some of them tend to the babies, some of them do little waggle-dances… Soldier bees. Worker bees. Forager bees. Etc.
One aspect of personality (something we don’t tend to attribute to bees) is the difference in novelty-seeking between various folks. Turns out, there are thrill-seeking bees out there. So… does that mean bees have personalities as well?
Thrill-seeking bees… That’s where it started. That concept. Because, in my mind, something sprang forward at that phrase.
Note: Danger Bee’s name is always said in the voice of that generic, gravelly voiced man who does the narration for all action movie previews. You know the one. That is how you must always read his name. DANGER BEE. You must then follow the gravelly voiced man with a chorus of three women who chime a short, high-pitched little “lal” noise afterward. DANGER BEE *lal*. Not hearing this in your head every time you see his name will really cheapen the experience.
Danger Bee has a devil-may-care attitude. Danger Bee smokes cigarettes and ramps a tiny motorcycle over fire ant hills. Danger Bee always wears sunglasses, even inside the hive, though that sometimes causes him to bump into waggle-dancers. Danger Bee doesn’t care. Danger Bee doesn’t dance. Danger Bee lives for the thrill.
Now, how can bees exhibit signs of thrill-seeking behavior (besides the aforementioned tiny motorcycles, naturally)? Well, researchers looked at two particular bits of novelty-seeking: hive scouting and food scouting.
As a swarm grows and grows, it will eventually get too large for its living space. In this situation, a small percentage of the bees (about 5%) fly off to find a new nest site. These intrepid scouts are also 3.4 times more likely than their fellows to later become food scouts (hunting for new food sources for the nest).
“There is a gold standard for personality research and that is if you show the same tendency in different contexts, then that can be called a personality trait,” said Gene Robinson, the leader of the study.
That’s right, baby. Danger Bee will find you a home. Danger Bee will find you food. Danger Bee will offer you security for the future while still retaining his badass aura. Danger Bee gets all the bee-tches.
Now, the whole novelty-seeking aspect of human and animal personalities isn’t perfectly understood. We assume it’s based on the relationship between how the brain’s reward system is engaged in relation to a certain experience. Which sounds like common sense, but the brain’s reward system can act very differently in various individuals sharing a similar experience, and it’s those relationship differences that hold the key to understanding thrill-seeking behavior.
So, having pinpointed these scout bees as exhibiting similar novelty-seeking traits, we decided to poke around in their brains a little. And what we found surprised us. We expected to find a few differences in gene activity in the brains of scout vs non-scout worker bees. What we found were thousands of distinct differences. Some of these, like those related to catecholamine, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid signaling, were ones researchers paid particular attention to, as they translated over to known reward system behavior in vertebrates.
And, to test that it was brain signaling that was impacting novelty-seeking behavior, they ran a few experiments. Pumped some non-scouting bees with glutamate and octopamine to see if it would trigger scouting behavior (it did). Blocked dopamine in scouting bees (reduced scouting). Stuff like that.
While it seems some of the basics for the genetic aspects of novelty-seeking evolved in many more species than we originally believed, each species has adapted them in their own way.
But what’s really interesting to me is whether you’ve figured out Danger Bee’s secret. Let us cut to the end of Danger Bee’s big action flick and the shocking reveal:
The scene: The smoking remains of a hive of Japanese giant hornets, those vicious bastards that killed Danger Bee’s childhood friend and kidnapped the queen. Danger Bee stands triumphant, his gun smoking, his cigarette still dangling out of the corner of his mouth. He’s fired off his witty one-liner, and the queen rushes over to him and throws herself into his arms.
Queen: Oh, Danger Bee! I knew you’d rescue me.
Danger Bee: Of course, doll. You know I’d do anything for you.
Danger Bee dips the queen down low, his face a hairbreadth from hers. The sexual tension is palpable. The queen quivers in his embrace, Danger Bee’s face reflected hundreds of times in her large, shining compound eyes. He leans in a bit closer, their lips almost touching…
Queen: But, Danger Bee…
Danger Bee: This isn’t the time for talking, baby.
Queen: But, Danger Bee… you’re a woman.
Danger Bee releases the queen, who falls in a confused, buzzing heap on the ground. He looks her square in the eye.
Danger Bee: Looks like you got me, darling.
Slowly, Danger Bee draws a hidden zipper down the front of his large, manly thorax and abdomen, before shrugging out of the costume, leaving a sexy lady bee standing before the queen.
Cue sexy lady bee love scene.
That’s right- Danger Bee’s a dame. See, worker bees are all females (mostly infertile, though some can become laying worker bees) who weren’t fed with the royal jelly and didn’t become a queen. So, these thrill-seeking bees from the experiment? Yeah, they’re all ladies.
Bet you didn’t see that coming.