Professor, School of Life Sciences
Arizona State University
The roles of social networks in disease transmission and individual decision making using the honey bee as a model
Social insects are highly successful because of the coordination of activities of many individuals. These social networks function in many different contexts, including finding food, defense of a colony and fighting disease. In honey bees, formation of a social network depends on establishing behavioral castes composed of subsets of workers. As workers age they progress through a series of functions for the colony that range from caring for brood and the queen, to cleaning and building the nest, to nest defense and foraging for nectar and pollen. Progression through these tasks is roughly correlated with age and influenced by a worker’s genotype. However, the rate of progression through these tasks is also responsive to signals from the colony’s environment which accelerate or regress behavioral development. Research has therefore revealed a lot about the genotype x environment interactions that regulate how individuals respond to environmental contingencies the colony faces. But more needs to be known about how social networks function when composed of individuals in different behavioral states. My research has focused on two kinds of networks. First, as a colony searches for food, some foragers exploit what is already known whereas others explore for new resources. This specialization may be part of a foraging ‘syndrome’. Second, workers are also responsive to disease state of brood and other workers. So-called ‘undertaker’ bees can remove dead carcasses from the colony, for example. Tracking interactions within and across social networks in a colony may provide a means for examining how these networks respond to and control the spread of disease in the colony.
Brian Smith is a behavioral neuroscientist who studies how animals learn about odors in order to predict important events, such as an encounter with food, a mate or predator. His research employs detailed behavioral studies of learning and memory. He and his research team also use a combination of electrophysiological, bioimaging, molecular and computational techniques to directly link changes in behavior to changes in the brain. Smith’s research focuses on learning and memory in both insects and mammals. His work is being applied to studies of human diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to the negative effects of heavy metal poisoning on learning and memory. More recently he has started reviving a former interest in how social networks influence individual decision making, and in particular combining studies of individual behavioral plastiticity in adaptive responses of social networks to environmental challenges.