Honey bees and supercomputers

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What do they have in common? Research by Saurabh Sinha, a University of Illinois assistant professor of computer science using NCSA’s supercomputers to understand the genetic roots of why honey bees — social insects — behave the way they do.

Honey beesIn a typical honey bee colony, young worker bees are responsible for attending to the queen and her larvae. As the worker bee ages, it progresses through different roles, ultimately landing the job of forager bee. Under irregular conditions, this natural succession can be disrupted causing the bee to prematurely adopt an advanced position within the hive. A nurse bee, for instance, will suddenly become a forager if for some reason there are not enough foragers bees in the hive. The genetic explanation for such socially regulated behavior in bees can also help in understanding the rules that influence behavior in other species, including humans.

Sinha’s approach is to use the mapped genome of the wasp, a relative of the honey bee that lacks the social skills of even the most retiscent Fortran66 programmer, as a filter for candidate genes. Gene sequences that the bee has but which are missing from the wasp are candidate causes of the social behavior.

Sinha and team developed statistics to predict which sequences are responsible for the socially regulated behavior in bees and where the sequences may be located. The process is long and complicated.

“Because of the sophisticated nature of those statistical procedures, it takes time and it takes a lot of computing power,” Sinha said.

More in the article, along with a video presentation highlighting the research.