Many animals share behavioral traits with human beings—for example, while some humans kiss their dogs, they in turn show affection by licking their masters or playmates. Apes and chimpanzees show their parenting skills by grooming their young and keeping them out of harm’s way. Now, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows us that even insects, namely, honey bees share a social behavior with those who suffer with an autism spectrum disorder. In specially designed tests to gauge interaction among 245 different groups of honey bees from seven different colonies—bees were subjected to stimuli that would elicit either an aggressive response or nurturing one, nonetheless, a small subset (14%) did not respond to either stimulus. Research scientists at the University of Illinois-Urbana determined that this subset of bees, which were indifferent or unresponsive to various scenarios, could be traced to having a distinctive set of genes.
Even though bees and people don’t share the same evolution, researchers hypothesized that they may have genes in common. Based on this, researchers compared that set of genes to sets of genes found in autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. Only the genes for autism were a good match between the socially unresponsive bees and autistic human beings.
This is at the heart of sociobiology, a controversial evolutionary theory that suggests regardless of species, gene expression is deeply rooted and shared resulting in similar behaviors. However, until more animal or insect studies are conducted, it’s too early to tell whether similar genes shape social behavior in different species. Still, observing honey bee society shows us that we do share an ancient molecular inheritance that determines just how engaged we are with others in the world just as honey bees are with the members or nonmembers of their hives. So next time you notice some bees behaving oddly like shunning other worker bees, remember they have more in common with us than we realize.