Honey bees live in a chemical world; their survival depends on their ability to detect floral scents and communicate via pheromones with other bees in the hive. Discrimination among various chemical cues involves specific nerve cell receptors for smell (olfaction) and taste (gustation). With the genome sequence of the honey bee now in hand, Drs. Hugh Robertson and Kevin Wanner have identified the complete repertoire of receptors responsible for capturing these cues.
In their Genome Research article, Robertson and Wanner report the identification of 163 olfactory receptors, which is more than twice the number in fruit flies (62) and mosquitoes (79). "The expansion of olfactory receptors in bees underlies their social complexity and skill at locating flowers," explains Robertson.
On the other hand, the scientists identified only 10 gustatory receptor genes in the honey bee genome, far fewer than in fruit fly (68) or mosquito (76). "Bees have little need for gustatory receptors to locate and recognize food," Robertson says. "The larvae are sequestered in cells in the hive and are provisioned by adult nurse bees. And flowering plants have evolved mechanisms to attract and reward bees for pollination services, so there was little need for the bees to develop additional taste receptors."
Hugh M. Robertson, Ph.D.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Robertson, H.M. and Wanner, K.W. 2006. The chemoreceptor superfamily in the honey bee, Apis mellifera: Expansion of the odorant, but not gustatory, receptor family. Genome Res. 16: 1395-1404. [DOI: 10.1101/gr.5057506]