A new study in Science suggests that thrill-seeking is not limited to humans and other vertebrates. Some honey bees, too, are more likely than others to seek adventure. The brains of these novelty-seeking bees exhibit distinct patterns of gene activity in molecular pathways known to be associated with thrill-seeking in humans, researchers report.

The findings offer a new window on the inner life of the honey bee hive, which once was viewed as a highly regimented colony of seemingly interchangeable workers taking on a few specific roles (nurse or forager, for example) to serve their queen. Now it appears that individual honey bees actually differ in their desire or willingness to perform particular tasks, said University of Illinois entomology professor and Institute for Genomic Biology director Gene Robinson, who led the study. These differences may be due, in part, to variability in the bees’ personalities, he said.

“In humans, differences in novelty-seeking are a component of personality,” he said. “Could insects also have personalities?”

Robinson and his colleagues studied two behaviors that looked like novelty-seeking in honey bees: scouting for nest sites and scouting for food.

When a colony of bees outgrows its living quarters, the hive divides and the swarm must find a suitable new home. At this moment of crisis, a few intrepid bees – less than 5 percent of the swarm – take off to hunt for a hive.

These bees, called nest scouts, are on average 3.4 times more likely than their peers to also become food scouts, the researchers found.

“There is a gold standard for personality research and that is if you show the same tendency in different contexts, then that can be called a personality trait,” Robinson said. Not only do certain bees exhibit signs of novelty-seeking, he said, but their willingness or eagerness to “go the extra mile” can be vital to the life of the hive.

The researchers wanted to determine the molecular basis for these differences in honey bee behavior. They used whole-genome microarray analysis to look for differences in the activity of thousands of genes in the brains of scouts and non-scouts.

“People are trying to understand what is the basis of novelty-seeking behavior in humans and in animals,” who Robinson, who also is affiliated with the Neuroscience Program at Illinois. “And a lot of the thinking has to do with the relationship between how the (brain’s) reward system is engaged in response to some experience.”