How queen bees control the princesses

January 28, 2016
Luke Holman. Credit: L. Holman

Queen bees and ants emit a chemical that alters the DNA of their daughters and keeps them as sterile and industrious workers, scientists have found.

"When deprived of the pheromone that queens emit, and become more self-centred and lazy, and they begin to lay eggs," said lead researcher Dr Luke Holman from The Australian National University (ANU).

"Amazingly, it looks like the queen pheromone works by chemically altering ' genes," said Dr Holman, a biologist in the ANU Research School of Biology.

Queen bees and ants can have hundreds of thousands of offspring and live for many years, while workers are short-lived and mostly sterile, even though they have the same DNA as the queen.

Recent research suggests that a chemical modification to a baby bee or ant's DNA, called DNA methylation, helps determine whether the baby develops into a queen or a worker.

Dr Holman collaborated with biologists from the University of Helsinki to investigate whether the queen's pheromone altered DNA methylation in workers.

The team found evidence that indeed, workers exposed to pheromones tag their DNA with methylation differently, which might suppress queenly characteristics in the workers.

Surprisingly, the queen pheromone of honeybees seemed to lower methylation, while the queen pheromone of ants seemed to increase it, suggesting things work differently in bees and ants.

"Bees and ants evolved their two-tier societies independently. It would be confusing but cool if they had evolved different means to the same end," Dr Holman said.

Dr Holman said he was looking forward to studying Australian next, which evolved sociality independently from the European species in this study.

"It brings us one step closer to understanding how these animals evolved their amazing cooperative behaviour, which in many ways is a step beyond human evolution," he said.

The research is published in Biology Letters.

Explore further: New study challenges popular explanation for why a social insect becomes a worker or queen

Related Stories

The ant queen's chemical crown

June 30, 2010

The defining feature of social insects is that societies contain queens, which specialise in laying eggs, as well as workers, which are mostly infertile but take care of the offspring and the nest. However, when the queen ...

Bees to scientists: 'We're more complicated than you think'

October 21, 2015

Chemical signaling among social insects, such as bees, ants and wasps, is more complex than previously thought, according to researchers at Penn State and Tel Aviv University, whose results refute the idea that a single group ...

Recommended for you

New discovery challenges long-held evolutionary theory

October 19, 2017

Monash scientists involved in one of the world's longest evolution experiments have debunked an established theory with a study that provides a 'high-resolution' view of the molecular details of adaptation.

Water striders illustrate evolutionary processes

October 19, 2017

How do new species arise and diversify in nature? Natural selection offers an explanation, but the genetic and environmental conditions behind this mechanism are still poorly understood. A team led by Abderrahman Khila at ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.