Sequential social experiences interact to modulate aggression but not brain gene expression in the honey bee (Apis mellifera)

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16 Scopus citations


Background: In highly structured societies, individuals behave flexibly and cooperatively in order to achieve a particular group-level outcome. However, even in social species, environmental inputs can have long lasting effects on individual behavior, and variable experiences can even result in consistent individual differences and constrained behavioral flexibility. Despite the fact that such constraints on behavior could have implications for behavioral optimization at the social group level, few studies have explored how social experiences accumulate over time, and the mechanistic basis of these effects. In the current study, I evaluate how sequential social experiences affect individual and group level aggressive phenotypes, and individual brain gene expression, in the highly social honey bee (Apis mellifera). To do this, I combine a whole colony chronic predator disturbance treatment with a lab-based manipulation of social group composition. Results: Compared to the undisturbed control, chronically disturbed individuals show lower aggression levels overall, but also enhanced behavioral flexibility in the second, lab-based social context. Disturbed bees display aggression levels that decline with increasing numbers of more aggressive, undisturbed group members. However, group level aggressive phenotypes are similar regardless of the behavioral tendencies of the individuals that make up the group, suggesting a combination of underlying behavioral tendency and negative social feedback influences the aggressive behaviors displayed, particularly in the case of disturbed individuals. An analysis of brain gene expression showed that aggression related biomarker genes reflect an individual's disturbance history, but not subsequent social group experience or behavioral outcomes. Conclusions: In highly social animals with collective behavioral phenotypes, social context may mask underlying variation in individual behavioral tendencies. Moreover, gene expression patterns may reflect behavioral tendency, while behavioral outcomes are further regulated by social cues perceived in real-time.

Original languageEnglish
Article number16
JournalFrontiers in Zoology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 3 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Author(s).


  • Aggression
  • Behavioral genomics
  • Collective behavior
  • Personality
  • Plasticity
  • Social insects
  • Timescale

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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