Bees have personalities — and we can change them

Honey bees drones actually have a large spectrum of personalities. Scientists found that some are homebodies, some are explorers, and no matter what they are, we can change them.

There are some scientific studies for which the results don't matter so much as the method of inquiry. For example, when people hear that a team led by the University of Illinois has discovered that honey bees have personalities — and how to change those personalities — the results of the study can be safely pushed aside while people focus on the question, "How in the world do you figure out that bees have personalities?"

The first step is defining what a "personality" is. Science has done this before with both octopuses and humans. The defining trait of personality is a consistent response to similar stimuli in different contexts. People (who do have personalities) do not respond to one barking dog by cowering in a corner and respond to an out-of-control horse by running up to it. Octopuses, who do not have personalities have shown that one day they will run from a strange object while another day they will investigate it.

Honey bees hives are filled with self-sacrificing drones who, under the right circumstances, don't have a care for their lives, let alone personal preferences. Still, there are differences. Certain bees, while gathering food, tended to range farther and explore more than other drones. They did this consistently, but that alone wasn't enough to convince the researchers that they had personalities. Then the hives grew until they had overgrown their homes. The colony had to split. Before the split could happen, intrepid bees had to go out in search of new nest sites. By necessity, these couldn't be too close to the other hives, or they two populations would compete. The most novelty-seeking worker bees responded to the crisis, scouting out new areas to nest, searching far beyond the scope of the regular hive.

Once researchers found bees that had novelty-seeking personalities, they took a look at their biological make-up, finding genes expressed differently depending on the bee's tendency to seek out new horizons. They then starting tinkering with the various biological that determined personalities in the bees. Glutamate and octopamine increased novelty-seeking behavior, making bees reckless. Decreasing dopamine, however, tended to lessen the chemical reward for each risk and inhibited the behavior.

So yes, as soon as we found out that bees had personalities, we found a way to brainwash them. Even eerier than that, their more adventurous biological make-up matches with the biological make-up of our more adventurous human beings. Chemically brainwashing a bee isn't that different from brainwashing a human being.

Image: Jon Sullivan. Via Science.