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Friday, September 23, 2011

Born to bee royal: Scientists find that queens and workers have their destinies in their cells

By Jessica Satherley

Larger than life: A queen bee surrounded by worker bees. Scientists found that their destines are pre-determined

The caste system which sees a honey bee either become a queen or a mere worker is pre-determined in larvae before they are born, researchers have found.

Previously, it was thought that queens were 'chosen' from among normal larvae and 'fed' royal jelly to 'crown' them queen. Royal jelly is a protein-rich secretion sometimes eaten by humans as health supplement.

But it seems that as newly-hatched bees lie worm-like in their hive during the early stages of life, their destiny is already mapped out.

Scientists from China and Ethiopia have been studying the honey bees and looked at proteins inside the cells of their larvae.

Scientist Jianke Li of China and colleagues found there are major differences, during the early stages of life, in the activity of proteins in the mitochondria – the structures that produce energy for cells - between those bees destined for a royal existence, and those born for the humdrum life of a drone.

The differences included changes in the amounts of protein produced in cells and how the proteins acted.

In pre-queen larvae, proteins involved in carbohydrate and energy metabolism, for instance, are much more active than in workers.

The researchers conclude: 'This suggests proteins with metabolic enhancing activities generally appear to have significant roles in the process of caste determination.'

In other words, queen bees don't become queens because they are fed royal jelly - they are born with a metabolism designed to consume it.

Short life span: Worker bees live for six to seven weeks while the queen lives for between one and two years

Although queen and worker bees share almost identical genes, their destinies couldn’t be more different.

‘The female queen is large in size and specialises in reproduction,' the scientists explain, 'whereas workers are small and engage in colony-maintaining activities.'

Their life spans also vary, with the queen living for one to two years and the workers living only six to seven weeks.

Within bee colonies, only a select few bee larvae are destined for royalty, while the masses are set for worker status.

The study appears in ACS publication's Journal of Proteome Research.

The scientists noted that despite more than a century of research by many predecessors, mysteries still remain about the biochemical factors at the basis of the fascinating caste system in honeybee colonies.



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