U of I makes beeline to surprising findings

By Laura Wood

There has been some buzz in the air about what’s been happening in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s research labs.

It appears that honeybees have distinct personality traits that set them apart from each other, and these traits’ chemical makeup is similar to that of humans’, according to recent research conducted by scientists at UIUC and reported on this month by the science news site LiveScience.

The researchers watched eight different colonies scout for food and potential living quarters for more than two years, and results showed that some bees are inclined to venture a little farther than others in the hive. Some were even reported to have searched for more than one food source before returning to perform the food-finding dance for the rest of the swarm.


Bees with this attribute were pegged with a “novelty-seeking” personality, while those that stayed closer to the hive were simply called homebodies and used for comparison during the research.

When a bee finds a new food source or place to build a new hive, a part in their brain reacts to release a sense of reward. The same activity can be found in human brains, and that helped to peg the thrill-seeking attributes as a distinct personality.

Once the researchers were able to single out and analyze the explorer bees’ brains, they took their studies a little further to determine if genetics had anything to do with it. After observing more than 1,000 different genes, the scientists found that several were related to three specific signaling pathways — catecholamine, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid — that regulate novelty-seeking and reward-response attributes in vertebrates.

After they discovered the gene similarities, the scientists wondered — as so naturally scientists do — whether it was possible to alter them and change the bees’ personalities. They decided to administer drugs to the bees that would either increase or decrease the likelihood of scouting, and the results were more successful than the researchers anticipated.

The researchers found they could increase scouting tendencies from 7 percent to 13 percent if they administer drugs to influence glutamate activity in the bees’ brains. Glutamate is directly involved in memory and novelty-seeking in humans.

It’s no surprise researchers tried to find a way to alter the bees’ personalities almost as soon as they found they existed. And with all kinds of psychotropic prescriptions that are available to anyone who shows signs of inattentiveness, it’s a trend that seems vaguely similar to today’s medical market.

Who knew brainwashing could bee so easy?