Is this bee solitary or social? The answer may depend on an autism-linked gene

Science | AAAS | 10/18/2018 | Staff
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One of biology’s enduring mysteries is how some animals—from humans to honey bees—became so social. Now, a study suggests that, in the inconspicuous sweat bee, changes to the expression of a single gene could determine which bees are solitary and which are social. The gene, which has previously been linked to autism in humans, has also been connected to social behavior in animals like mice and locusts. The new discovery puts scientists one step closer toward demonstrating a common evolutionary basis for social behavior.

“People have been taking about the genetics of sociality for years,” says Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, who was not involved with the work. “Finding this gene is a real watershed for the field.”

Sweat - Bees - Colonies - Honey - Bees

Sweat bees don’t have the same massive colonies as honey bees, whose hundreds of workers care for and protect a single egg-laying queen. But the tiny, gentle bees have some interesting social arrangements: In some groups and species, workers help a reproducing queen, as honey bees do; in other groups, sweat bee females tend their own broods. This difference has led scientists to think sweat bees may hold the key to understanding how more complex insect societies began to evolve.

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In the 1950s, French biologist Cécile Plateaux-Quénu documented two distinct behaviors in a single species of sweat bee, Lasioglossum albipes. Females in cooler parts of France didn’t generally have helpers, whereas those in warmer parts did—there, female bees would lay two sets of eggs, and hatchlings from the first set would tend to the second set of eggs. Plateaux-Quénu’s studies showed, too, that this difference was inherited.

Decades - Sarah - Kocher - Geneticist - Princeton

Two decades later, Sarah Kocher, an evolutionary geneticist now at Princeton University, decided to follow up on Plateaux-Quénu’s...
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