What makes honey bees bee-have the way they do

What makes a worker bee a good worker? The answer may be both nature and nurture, says York  Professor Amro Zayed, who is studying the genetic basis of honey bee behaviour to create better bee colonies.

“A colony lives or dies by how well the workers perform, and there is a tremendous amount of variation,” says Zayed. “One colony may be a little bit aggressive but very good for producing honey. Another may be docile and hygienic, and a third may be hygienic but not produce a lot of honey. It’s all about slight differences in genetics between colonies.”

Zayed, a biology professor in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, is leading a team of graduate students in experiments at his research apiary on nearby Toronto Region Conservation Authority land. They conduct behaviour experiments on the bees, examine differences in behaviour between 60 colonies, crossbreed the bees and take their offspring back to the lab for genetic analysis.

“When you look closely at the thousands of bees in one colony, you see that some worker bees are feeding the young larvae, some are going out foraging for nectar, some are cleaning the colony of disease and dead larvae, and some worker bees are watching you, guarding the colony,” says Zayed. “The fascinating part is all of these behaviours are manifested by the same basic DNA. What we are trying to understand is how differences in the DNA or in how genes are turned on and off give rise to these wonderful behaviours.”

Amro ZayedRight: Amro Zayed

Observation of bee behaviour is not a new field. However, Zayed’s lab is also integrating the study of population genetics (what makes subspecies different at a genetic level) with research on the genome, to study the evolution and genetic mechanisms underlying worker behaviour in honey bee colonies.

“This will help us to breed better bees in the future and will also advance our understanding of the genetics of behaviour in higher organisms, including our own,” he says.

Zayed and his team have recently started an experiment to study the genetic basis of a whole list of behaviours, from the age at which a worker starts foraging to the best immune system for worker honeybees. Zayed’s research is funded by the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada, an Early Researcher Award from the Ontario Ministry of Research & Innovation, and the Canadian Honey Council.

To follow the study, visit the Zayed Lab blog.