January 2, 2023
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Honey bees: understanding autism & social behaviour

Last updated on February 4, 2023

I came across information about how a group of bees share genetics with autistics, and behave similarly to us in some ways. It was out of a deep fascination with this that this article was born. I will explain the social behaviour of—and between—autistic people and neurotypicals, using honey bees as an analogy. It will make sense soon, I promise!


Honey bees & autism

I often use bees to explain autism. Why bees? Well, two reasons.

Nature conserves genetic “toolkits”[1]Deep evolutionary conservation of autism-related genes (Shpigler et al., 2017)

All honey bees (Apis mellifera) are born genetically identical. These roles are defined not just by behavioural differences but also by physical ones. Underlying them are minor modifications to their DNA: ‘epigenetic’ changes that leave the DNA sequence intact but add chemical tags of methyl (CH3) molecules to sections of the DNA. This, in turn, alters the way a gene is expressed.[2]Job swapping makes its mark on honeybee DNA (Guttridge, 2012)

Once a bee is a queen or worker, they fulfill that role for life — the change is irreversible. But that is not the case for the subdivisions among the workers. The workers start out as nurses, looking after and feeding the queen and larvae. Most go on to become foragers, which travel out from the hive searching for pollen. Again the two types have very different methylation patterns in their DNA.

The bees turn themselves into the most needed bees. I don’t mean to alter the larvae, but to actually change adult bees. So, for example, if nurse bees are needed, some of the worker bees change into nurse bees.

Nature keeps the genes it needs to adapt and thrive, and autism genes are found even in honeybees.

Nature has alternative adaptive strategies to human pro-sociality

I recall a sci-fi story called Nine Lives by Ursula K. Le Guin. In the story, humans have developed what they assume is an efficient way to exist. They create ten clones of each person. Nine clones die when a planet-quake occurs because they all run deeper into a cave. If the clones were actually nine individuals, some would have survived because they would not have all had the same strategy.

Like humans, honey bees differ in their social strategies. Researchers have found a group of bees they describe as asocial—though I dislike that terminology as I feel that it is ableist.[3]Antisocial bees share genetic profile with people with autism (Pennisi, 2017) Just because I don’t socialize like a neurotypical, it does not make me asocial.

Scientists observed the behaviour of bees in hives under different social conditions. In the first condition, they put a stranger bee in the hive, and this bee was basically mobbed and/or harmed. They put an immature queen larva in the hive in the second condition, which brought out the social bees mothering behaviour.[4]Antisocial bees share genetic profile with people with autism (Pennisi, 2017)

Most bees reacted to one or the other social situation, but some did not respond to either of those two social situations. The autopsied asocial bees had a distinct genetic profile. The researchers then compared this gene profile to autistic, schizophrenics, and depressed people. They found a good match only between the gene activity of the non-responsive bees and genes associated with autism.[5]Deep evolutionary conservation of autism-related genes (Shpigler et al., 2017)

Several neurochemicals cause neurotypicals and autistics to behave differently. I have listed these below with a very brief description of what they do—I will go into greater detail later in this article.

  • Dopamine: teaches us what results in reward or punishment
  • Oxytocin: fairness/favouritism (bonding makes us favour certain people and utilize our resources for them and keep our resources from others)
  • Pheromones: a chemical that an animal produces that changes another animal’s behavior of the same species.

DSM-5 criteria for autism

The table below is a quick summary of the DSM-5 criteria for autism, which may be a helpful supplement to this article.

DSM-5 autism main criteria
DescriptionMeaning/focus
AChallenges in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history:Do you socialize and communicate like a neurotypical?
BRestricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:Do you have the skills required to be a neurotypical?
CSymptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).You have had—at least some of—the aforementioned traits since you were a child.
DSymptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.Your traits affect your daily life interacting in the neurotypical world.
EThese disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.Do you have intellectual impairments that could better account for your traits than autism?

For more comprehensive information on what the DSM-5 requirements for autism are, read the article below.

Decoding autism in the DSM-5

Dopamine

The main hive—where neurotypicals socialize in a pro-societal way (let’s call that social-N).

Then outside of the hive, we have autistics who socialize with a different purpose, as autodidacts or innovators would (let’s call that social-A). Autistics share genes with what the researchers call ‘asocial’ bees. I don’t like that term as it is simply a different form of socializing. Society needs both types of social behaviour.

Embrace Autism | Honey bees: understanding autism & social behaviour | illustration Beehive DopamineHive

Let’s pretend this is a game that we are playing and whoever gets the most points wins. You gets points given or taken away depending on if the activity you engage in gives or takes away dopamine.

So the blue bees (autistic genes) on the lefthand side focus on their special interest by discussing it with someone or engaging in parallel play (being in a room with someone but engaging in your own interest). They are becoming a specialist in their passion—they are teaching themselves (autodidact) about that interest, and their interest can be anything. It might be playing a musical instrument, being an artist, studying psychology, learning about K-pop, or playing a video game.

For non-autistics (green bees), socializing provides them with dopamine, but hearing an autistic talk at length about their special interest is unpleasant because they lose dopamine. Once their cup is full, more is not better.

Differences in dopamine systems between autistics and non-autistics accounts for the differences.

We present such a hypothesis by proposing that autistic behavior arises from dysfunctions in the midbrain dopaminergic system. We hypothesize that a dysfunction of the mesocorticolimbic circuit leads to social deficits, while a dysfunction of the nigrostriatal circuit leads to stereotyped behaviors.[6]A Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder ( A Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Pavăl, 2017)

Non-autistics have long seen and called our different behaviour as disordered. That being said a reward/punishment motivation pleasure learning neurotransmitter is responsible for a significant amount of the difference.

It all starts with a little neurotransmitter (a chemical that sends signals from the body to the brain) called Dopamine. Dopamine is a “teaching signal,” like a coach who tells his player “good job” or “bad job” to encourage a future reward.[7]Mesolimbic dopamine signals the value of work (Hamid et al., 2015)

A diagram of a dopamine molecule.

Dopamine is involved in motivation and learning. Dopamine levels continuously signal how good or valuable the current situation is regarding obtaining a reward. This messenger helps people decide how vigorously to work toward a goal, while also allowing them to learn from mistakes.

For most of us, we would then think the more we do of that activity, the more dopamine we get. That is true only up to a certain point. Think of each endeavour as having a specific value/need. Your body then gives you a cup to collect dopamine in. And depending on the activity, you have a cup of a particular size. Once your cup has filled, more simply causes the liquid to pour onto you.

Let me give you a practical example. I love chocolate. So my body secretes a ton of dopamine in anticipation of receiving chocolate (anticipation of my reward). Once I get the chocolate, I get a little bit more dopamine (obtaining the reward). This process will repeat for one or two more chocolates, but after that, I don’t want more chocolate, and forcing me to eat more chocolate will only make me feel sick. However, suppose I switch to a different activity that I enjoy. In that case, I will get a new cup and a big hit of dopamine again.

So let’s talk about social situations. First I want to explain that autistics are not just extreme introverts, we have an entirely different dopamine system. Extroverts are given an enormous cup that takes them a LONG time to fill, and thus they can and do socialize for long periods. Introverts are given a much smaller cup, so their cup gets filled up pretty quickly with socializing. So what about autistics? Well, our socializing cup for neurotypical environments has a hole in it. So whatever dopamine we have been able to collect from focusing on our areas of interest starts pouring out when we are in that environment. And that results in it acting as a punishment and causes depression, autistic catatonia, and Parkinsonism.

Please note that Parkinsonism is NOT Parkinson’s. It is just used to explain some of the symptoms we get with  loss of dopamine.

Dopamine affects learning (cause and effect) and motivation (getting fired up to go now) simultaneously.

Abrupt dopamine increases when a person perceives stimuli that predict rewards, a dominant mechanism of reward learning within the brain—a concept similar to Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s dog hearing the bell and salivating at a response to stimuli. It is highly involved in addictive behaviour.[8]The Role of Dopamine in Motivation and Learning | Neuroscience News[9]Mesolimbic dopamine signals the value of work (Hamid et al., 2015)

Studies report dopamine signaling differences in autistics. Specifically, we become more social when we are given dopamine.[10]A Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Pavăl, 2017)[11] The Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder Revisited: Current Status and Future Prospects (Pavăl & Micluția, 2021)

Autistic subjects have shown alterations in the mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic signalling pathway, such as reduced dopamine release in the prefrontal cortex and reduced neural response in the nucleus accumbens.

The meta-analysis included a total of 259 people with autism and 246 controls. Seven of the studies tested social stimuli such as seeing a person smile and wave, and 10 included tests of nonsocial rewards.

Overall, the analysis indicates weak system activation in people with autism in response to both social and nonsocial rewards. The results suggest weak activation, particularly in the caudate nucleus, nucleus accumbens, and anterior cingulate gyrus.

The researchers also identified pockets of increased brain activation in autistic people. These regions include the right insula and putamen in response to social rewards and the left insula and left caudate nucleus in response to nonsocial ones.

Three studies looked at how the reward system responds to images related to restricted interests, such as trains or computers. They suggest that the reward circuit goes into overdrive in people with autism in response to pictures of their interests.[12]Evaluation of the Social Motivation Hypothesis of Autism: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis (Clements et al., 2018)

Repetitive behaviours described in autistics people include sensory differences, need for sameness, passionate interests, and stimming.  Dopamine-related genes are implicated in repetitive behaviours.[13]A Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Pavăl, 2017)[14]Biopsychological correlates of repetitive and restricted behaviors in autism spectrum disorders (Comparan-Meza, 2021)

Imagine two little mice below. The number of times “neurotypical” vs. “autistic” mice have to push the lever to get their fill of dopamine. NTs get much greater rewards for much less work, where 1 lever push → 1 dopamine molecule, and 10 lever pushes → 10 dopamine molecules. Whereas “autistic” mice have to push the lever 100 times to get 3 dopamine molecules.


Dopamine buckets

Dopamine is a funny thing. When the NT mouse pushes the lever one-two-three, they are full of “work” dopamine. Once the bucket is full, more is not better. Imagine the bucket spilling over—you need to change to a different cup to get more dopamine—you have to do another activity. So we have a work bucket, a hanging-out-with-friends bucket, an eating-delicious-foods bucket, etc. The NTs do some work, get the dopamine, and then change to socializing and fill that bucket.

An illustration of how dopamine drives our behaviors.

Autistics have to do a lot more work to get dopamine. While the autistic mouse pushes a lever 100 times for a single dopamine molecule. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight….two hundred and ninety-eight—two hundred and ninety-nine—three hundred—you get the idea.

Now, why would nature do this? 

How does nature create an autodidact—someone willing to spend hours upon hours at their craft? Well, precisely by altering the dopamine system. You see, people will not become exceptional at their skill set by socializing all the time. In the words of an autistic—“We are very thorough people”. Indeed we are; we are motivated by dopamine to love working for extended periods.

I suspect that nature’s need to innovate is behind many of our traits. For example, research shows more autistics identify as asexual than non-autistics. Asexual autistics reported less sexual desire and fewer sexual behaviors than those with other sexual orientations but greater sexual satisfaction. Why? Well, sex takes a lot of time. Pursuing it, doing it, etc. Asexuality is more efficient, and well lets us get back to work.

Asexuality can range from not wanting to be sexual, to sexualities like demi-sexual, where you only like having sex with a person you love. The Coolidge Effect below will demonstrate a known phenomenon seen in animals, where males experience a renewed interest in sex when a new female is introduced. Many autistics prefer to have sex only with the person they are in love with or not at all.[15]Are Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asexuality Connected? (Attanasio et al., 2021)[16]Sexual well-being of a community sample of high-functioning adults on the autism spectrum who have been in a romantic relationship (Byers, 2012) Again, this prevents the significant investment of time in looking for new partners.[17]Brief Report: Asexuality and Young Women on the Autism Spectrum (Bush, Williams, & Mendes, 2021)[18]Beyond the Label: Asexual Identity Among Individuals on the High-Functioning Autism Spectrum (Ronis et al., 2021)

I suspect this need to be able to focus without interruption is also part of why we have lower interoception.[19]First-Hand Accounts of Interoceptive Difficulties in Autistic Adults (Trevisan, Parker, & McPartland, 2021) If you are preoccupied with the need to urinate, eat, etc., that takes time and distracts you from whatever activity you are engaged in. If you can ignore those drives, you can stay focused and complete your work.


My socializing preference is due to my biology and physiology. Researchers found that when you give autistics intranasal dopamine, they engage in more neurotypical social behaviour.[20]Altered dopaminergic pathways and therapeutic effects of intranasal dopamine in two distinct mouse models of autism (Chao et al., 2020)

One big takeaway is that evolution has worked very hard to instill aversive feelings in autistics toward neurotypical socializing, and instilled a love of focusing on their particular interests. In fact, when we go into a social “hive”, our dopamine drops, and we get depressed,[21]Dopamine System Dysregulation in Major Depressive Disorders (Belujon & Grace, 2017) shut down, burnout, exhausted and Parkinsonism (selective mutism, stiffness).[22]High rates of parkinsonism in adults with autism.

Autistics have a great diversity in skills. This allows us to contribute to many interests and perspectives. Research finds that autistics are more likely to produce unusually creative ideas and innovations which allows society to evolve and thrive.[23]Research examines relationship between autism and creativity | Science Daily[24]The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking (Best et al., 2015)

One example I give to people about autisms form of socializing works in society’s favour. Imagine that we are back in time when we were just learning about agriculture. Well, you have your autistic that focuses on seeds. They know which seeds to plant—what shape, size, from which plant, etc. And they learn how far apart to grow them, how much to water them and how much sunlight. And this all comes from systemizing, looking at the patterns. Then you have your neurotypicals who get together and plant the seeds, and tend to the plants and harvest them, and then throw a big harvest party. And they say to the autistic, “Come to the harvest party.” And the autistic says, “Only if there is someone who knows something different about seeds than I know—otherwise I would prefer to stay here and study my seeds.”


Oxytocin

Fairness (bonding makes us favour certain people and utilize our resources for them)

Autistics tend to be high in ‘fairness’ due to our low oxytocin [25]Positive psychology in neurodiversity: An investigation of character strengths in autistic adults in the United Kingdom in a community setting. This is based on oxytocin, which is a binding neurotransmitter. Everyone thinks that bonding is a beautiful thing—and it is; but like everything, it also has its dark side: in-group favouritism or nepotism. People favour their group and divert resources to their group and away from other groups—this is known as human ethnocentrism.

Oxytocin is known as the love hormone, but that same hormone fosters racism, and -isms in general. In fact, it is found to be responsible for human ethnocentrism.

Carsten de Dreu, 44, a professor of psychology at the University of Leiden was interviewed regarding his studies on oxytocin and human ethnocentrism.

Carsten: We took groups of three and they had to play an economic game, competing with another group. They had money that they could a) keep for their personal benefit; b) invest in their in-group to their mutual benefit; or c) use to hurt the out-group. People given oxytocin increased their contributions to the in-group but there was no difference to their treatment of the out-group. The effect of oxytocin was limited to benefiting the in-group members.Interviewer: Nepotism?

Carsten: Exactly.

Interviewer: And your latest studies?

Carsten: We asked whether oxytocin works on a more basic level, in influencing our views on people in the in-group and out-group. In one test, we got men of Dutch origin to judge people with typical Dutch, Arab and German names; in the Netherlands, a lot of immigrants and Germans are perceived as out-groups. We know that people tend to judge people from their in-group more positively than people from out-groups. In all five experiments, when we gave people oxytocin compared to a placebo, we found that people became much more positive about their in-group. In four experiments, the oxytocin had no effect on their evaluation of the out-group. In one, the people who had taken oxytocin became more negative about the out-group also.[26]Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism (De Dreu, Van Kleef, & Handgraaf, 2010)

A diagram of an oxytocin molecule.

So how do non-autistics figure out which people belong to your group? Well, you can’t just go up to a person and say, “Hey, how rich are you?”; you have to use something called small talk. Small talk allows a person to pretty accurately figure out their education, class, religion, political preferences, income, etc. In a sense, it is a covert language that politely puts people into various groups. People also use your clothes, etc., to ascertain information about you. Each group, of course, thinks it is better than the other group, and society also places people into various value hierarchies.

It does not matter what the grouping is. There are so many. Married versus not married, black versus white, heterosexual versus homosexual, rich versus poor, LGBT2SQ+ vs heterosexism … it is what creates all the -isms; genderism, racism, sexism, ageism, etc.

Autistics don’t tend to engage in favouritism for at least two reasons. 1. Research demonstrates that besides oxytocin autistics show less in-group favouritism due to a decreased tendency for self-categorization[27]Self-categorization and Autism: Exploring the Relationship Between Autistic Traits and Ingroup Favouritism in the Minimal Group Paradigm (Bertschy, Skorich, & Haslam, 2020).

Researchers asked autistic children (of 3–4 years old) to throw a ball to everyone in the group equally. The autistics did exactly that. When the same request was made of non-autistics, it became immediately apparent who they liked most and least; the non-autistics threw the ball to the people they liked, and not to the people that they did not like.[28]Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (Andari et al., 2010)

Embrace Autism | Honey bees: understanding autism & social behaviour | illustration Beehive

The graph below illustrates how autistics throw the ball equally to everyone (uses ableist language, but I retained it due to it being from a scientific document). The three subjects were fictitious: an includer or good profile, a neutral profile, and an excluder or bad profile.

Embrace Autism | Honey bees: understanding autism & social behaviour | illustration Beehive BallGameFairness

The experiment shows something fundamental that I have experienced in my own life: fairness is highly valued by us, whereas social grouping is valued by non-autistics. The studies have illustrated that autistics treat good, bad, and neutral people almost equally.[29]Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders

The higher levels of oxytocin that neurotypicals naturally have leads to them investing in people who are inclusive, punish people who excluders, and acting neutrally to those who are neutral to them. In contrast, the lower natural oxytocin found in autistics causes them to give the same amount of resources to others, irrespective of whether it benefits them or not. This can set us up to be taken advantage of.


Pheromones

If the depression that hits you from lower dopamine does not keep you out of the hive, then the pheromones might. Pheromones are intraspecies communicators; they are chemicals that plants and animals release to trigger a social response—such as a warning signal—among members of the same species.

Embrace Autism | Honey bees: understanding autism & social behaviour | illustration Beehive Pheremones


Calm & fear chemicals

When things are frightening, neurotypicals release pheromones that indicate there is a problem, making other neurotypicals anxious; but those very pheromones have the opposite effect in autistic people: they calm us![30]Autism and the smell of fear; Odors that carry social cues seem to affect volunteers on the autism spectrum differently | Science Daily[31]Altered responses to social chemosignals in autism spectrum disorder (Shapira et al., 2017) This calmness allows autistics to act in situations that are frightening to other people.

For instance, I behaved very calmly when I witnessed a severe car accident, and helped whereas others were still too shocked to respond and call an ambulance. This cool-headedness was one of the traits that made me realize I was different from others.

Psychopaths and autistics are less reactive to frightening circumstances, such as seeing a car crash. The brain of a psychopath has a smaller prefrontal cortex—the part that regulates behavior, impulse control, and planning—and an altered amygdala, the seat of negative emotions like fear, guilt, and sadness.[32]How to Identify a Psychopath or Sociopath | Scientific American Others’ fear calms autistics. I am not talking about worry, those things we react to, but I mean harrowing situations like car accidents, someone breaking their leg, etc.

Embrace Autism | Honey bees: understanding autism & social behaviour | illustration Beehive CalmFearChemicals

See also:

A fear response to smelling calm chemicals

So overall, the DSM-5 is looking at the question, “Are you behaving like the green bees, or like the blue bees?”

I like being autistic (a blue bee). I like who it makes me. It allows me to be innovative. As a result, I have co-created this website with Eva Silvertant from a vision we had to provide evidence-based information and lived experiences of autism. I like that it makes me fair, and I like that it allows me to remain calm and help others in situations where other neurotypes panic. It also causes me to focus on work and to work hard. Each neurotype has its place in society, and I am glad to keep understanding more and more about our role.

References

References
1, 5 Deep evolutionary conservation of autism-related genes (Shpigler et al., 2017)
2 Job swapping makes its mark on honeybee DNA (Guttridge, 2012)
3, 4 Antisocial bees share genetic profile with people with autism (Pennisi, 2017)
6 A Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder ( A Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Pavăl, 2017)
7, 9 Mesolimbic dopamine signals the value of work (Hamid et al., 2015)
8 The Role of Dopamine in Motivation and Learning | Neuroscience News
10, 13 A Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Pavăl, 2017)
11 The Dopamine Hypothesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder Revisited: Current Status and Future Prospects (Pavăl & Micluția, 2021)
12 Evaluation of the Social Motivation Hypothesis of Autism: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis (Clements et al., 2018)
14 Biopsychological correlates of repetitive and restricted behaviors in autism spectrum disorders (Comparan-Meza, 2021)
15 Are Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asexuality Connected? (Attanasio et al., 2021)
16 Sexual well-being of a community sample of high-functioning adults on the autism spectrum who have been in a romantic relationship (Byers, 2012)
17 Brief Report: Asexuality and Young Women on the Autism Spectrum (Bush, Williams, & Mendes, 2021)
18 Beyond the Label: Asexual Identity Among Individuals on the High-Functioning Autism Spectrum (Ronis et al., 2021)
19 First-Hand Accounts of Interoceptive Difficulties in Autistic Adults (Trevisan, Parker, & McPartland, 2021)
20 Altered dopaminergic pathways and therapeutic effects of intranasal dopamine in two distinct mouse models of autism (Chao et al., 2020)
21 Dopamine System Dysregulation in Major Depressive Disorders (Belujon & Grace, 2017)
22 High rates of parkinsonism in adults with autism
23 Research examines relationship between autism and creativity | Science Daily
24 The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking (Best et al., 2015)
25 Positive psychology in neurodiversity: An investigation of character strengths in autistic adults in the United Kingdom in a community setting
26 Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism (De Dreu, Van Kleef, & Handgraaf, 2010)
27 Self-categorization and Autism: Exploring the Relationship Between Autistic Traits and Ingroup Favouritism in the Minimal Group Paradigm (Bertschy, Skorich, & Haslam, 2020)
28 Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (Andari et al., 2010)
29 Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders
30 Autism and the smell of fear; Odors that carry social cues seem to affect volunteers on the autism spectrum differently | Science Daily
31 Altered responses to social chemosignals in autism spectrum disorder (Shapira et al., 2017)
32 How to Identify a Psychopath or Sociopath | Scientific American
This article
was written by:
dr-natalie-engelbrecht
Dr. Natalie Engelbrecht ND RP is a dually licensed naturopathic doctor and registered psychotherapist, and a Canadian leader in trauma, PTSD, and integrative medicine strictly informed by scientific research. And not only do I happen to be autistic, but my autism plays a significant role in who I am as a doctor and how I interact with and care for my patients and clients.

Disclaimer

Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.

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