A link between unsociable honey bees and autistic humans has been uncovered by scientists.

Genes associated with autism display unusual activity patterns in bees that are socially unresponsive, a study shows.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects people's ability to engage socially and communicate.

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Researchers who looked at 246 groups of unrelated bees identified a subset of insects that did not respond to two key kinds of social stimulus, the appearance of an "outsider" bee and the presence of a queen larva.

The first situation would normally elicit aggression and the second caring behaviour.

Further analysis revealed more than 1,000 genes in the bees' brains that were regulated differently in unresponsive bees, "guard" bees and "nurse" bees.

Genes closely linked to autism in humans were highlighted in signatures of genetic activity seen in the unresponsive bees.

Lead scientist Professor Gene Robinson, from the University of Illinois, said: "Our data are telling us that social unresponsiveness does have some common molecular characteristics in these distantly related species.

"It's important to point out some caveats. Humans are not big bees and bees are not little humans. The social responsiveness depends on context, and is different in the two cases."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prof Robinson said social behaviour probably evolved independently in honey bees and humans, but employed "common tool kits".

Co-author Dr Michael Saul, also from the University of Illinois, added: "What really excites me about this study is that there appears to be this kernel of similarity between us and honey bees, a common animal inheritance that potentially drives social behaviour in similar ways.

"We haven't proved this, but this work is telling us where to look for that in the future."