May 2010


A 3D Digital Atlas of the Honeybee Head-Neck System

I loved drawing insects, plants, cells, and tissues in my university biology classes, probably just because I love to draw. This also gave me the chance to draw something in my science classes other than random notebook doodles of exploding beakers and supernovas.

However, the utility of two-dimensional drawings (the real ones, not my pointless doodles) as learnings tools in biology is limited. They don't fully represent the complexity of an organism's three-dimensional structure.

Due to these limitations, and advances in microscopy, scientists have developed three-dimensional models of numerous anatomical structures, such as the human brain. Such models can be viewed from many directions, are interactive, can be improved over time, and are readily shared with others, all of which ease student learning and scientific discovery.

Richard Berry and Michael Ibbotson (Australian National University) have created a three-dimensional digital atlas of the worker honeybee head-neck system. Given that the model can be easily interpreted, this research should be very useful for predicting muscle function in a species generally considered to be representative of flying insects.

The honeybee model.

Research from the 1940s and 1960s is still used today to describe honeybee anatomy. Is this research still useful, or is it dated, given tremendous recent advances in microscopy and digital tools?

Berry and Ibbotson anaesthetized and gently killed a bee, obtaining sections at one micrometer intervals. Every tenth of these sections was retained, which provided enough data for a resolution of between 5 and 10 micrometers.

Their painfully reconstructed model closely agrees with previous descriptions (although some differences are evident), suggesting that the new model is accurate. However, the great utility of the model was the scientists' ability to digitally hide individual skeletal components and muscles, greatly assisting their efforts at understanding muscle function.

The scientists presented a huge level of anatomical detail in their article. An intriguing highlight of their research was the finding that even a single muscle in the neck causes a wide range of head motions, enabling translation and rotation in the x, y, and z-axes (i.e. every direction).

Why is this significant? Since head movement depends not only on what neck muscle contracts, but on the contraction of other muscles at the same time, an understanding of muscle function can only be gained by evaluating the simultaneous effect of multiple neck muscles.

This is where the scientists' model will be extraordinarily useful; they will be able to experiment with different simulated muscles and critically evaluate the results. This is not possible with two-dimensional reconstructions.

Furthermore, accurate three-dimensional simulated studies reduce the need for live specimens. Once basic insight is obtained, electrical stimulation and high-speed video recordings of live bees can compliment and validate hypotheses based on simulated data.


This kind of research is well-suited for insects, but as mentioned, is certainly not limited to insects. Highly accurate three-dimensional simulated models are also finding much use in studying human (e.g. brain) anatomy, with the goal of understanding the anatomical basis of healthy and diseased states of the muscular and nervous system. for more information:
Berry, R. P., & Ibbotson, M. R. (2010). A Three-Dimensional Atlas of the Honeybee Neck PLoS ONE, 5 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010771