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Keywords:

  • Division of labor;
  • honey bee;
  • microRNA;
  • phylogenetics;
  • social behavior

Small, non-coding microRNAs (miRNAs) have been implicated in many biological processes, including the development of the nervous system. However, the roles of miRNAs in natural behavioral and neuronal plasticity are not well understood. To help address this we characterized the microRNA transcriptome in the adult worker honey bee head and investigated whether changes in microRNA expression levels in the brain are associated with division of labor among honey bees, a well-established model for socially regulated behavior. We determined that several miRNAs were downregulated in bees that specialize on brood care (nurses) relative to foragers. Additional experiments showed that this downregulation is dependent upon social context; it only occurred when nurse bees were in colonies that also contained foragers. Analyses of conservation patterns of brain-expressed miRNAs across Hymenoptera suggest a role for certain miRNAs in the evolution of the Aculeata, which includes all the eusocial hymenopteran species. Our results support the intriguing hypothesis that miRNAs are important regulators of social behavior at both developmental and evolutionary time scales.