Background: Honey bees are known for several striking social behaviors, including a complex pattern of behavioral maturation that gives rise to an age-related colony division of labor and a symbolic dance language, by which successful foragers communicate the location of attractive food sources to their nestmates. Our understanding of honey bees is mostly based on studies of the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, even though there are 9-10 other members of genus Apis, showing interesting variations in social behavior relative to A. mellifera. To facilitate future in-depth genomic and molecular level comparisons of behavior across the genus, we performed a microarray analysis of brain gene expression for A. mellifera and three key species found in Asia, A. cerana, A. florea and A. dorsata. Results: For each species we compared brain gene expression patterns between foragers and adult one-day-old bees on an A. mellifera cDNA microarray and calculated within-species gene expression ratios to facilitate cross-species analysis. The number of cDNA spots showing hybridization fluorescence intensities above the experimental threshold was reduced by an average of 16% in the Asian species compared to A. mellifera, but an average of 71% of genes on the microarray were available for analysis. Brain gene expression profiles between foragers and one-day-olds showed differences that are consistent with a previous study on A. mellifera and were comparable across species. Although 1772 genes showed significant differences in expression between foragers and one-day-olds, only 218 genes showed differences in forager/one-day-old expression between species (p < 0.001). Principal Components Analysis revealed dominant patterns of expression that clearly distinguished between the four species but did not reflect known differences in behavior and ecology. There were species differences in brain expression profiles for functionally related groups of genes. Conclusion: We conclude that the A. mellifera cDNA microarray can be used effectively for cross-species comparisons within the genus. Our results indicate that there is a widespread conservation of the molecular processes in the honey bee brain underlying behavioral maturation. Species differences in brain expression profiles for functionally related groups of genes provide possible clues to the basis of behavioral variation in the genus.
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