For anyone trying to tease out how the brain makes sense of the world, the honey bee is a perfect choice of study organism. It’s a social animal, living in a complex society where the jobs are divvied up. It has its own special language: the waggle dance, which scouts use to tell their nestmates exactly where to find the best flowers. It’s a champion navigator, using the sun and other cues to find its way to floral resources sometimes miles away and then bring them back to the hive. It harvests and then processes – some would say “cooks” – its food. It’s an engineer, building an elaborate, sturdy home for itself with plenty of nursery and storage space. It also undergoes developmental changes over the course of its brief lifetime, taking on new jobs in response to its own internal cues or the hive’s shifting needs.
As Illinois entomology professor Gene Robinson has shown, this is only the beginning of what makes the honey bee a beguiling study subject. Robinson, who now directs the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, got his start with the honey bee well before “genomics” existed as a field. Genomics is the study of how an organism’s entire genetic endowment functions and – we now know, thanks to scientists like Robinson – responds to environmental cues.
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