ACT News

How queen bees control the princesses: new ANU research sheds light on the life in the hives

There's nothing like a compliant, hard-working workforce that doesn't threaten to knock off the boss.

And when it comes to queen bees and ants, they seem to go the extra mile to ensure they keep their underlings in check.

Australian National University biologist Dr Luke Holman in the field, literally, researching bees.
Australian National University biologist Dr Luke Holman in the field, literally, researching bees. Photo: Supplied

Even so far as changing their workers' DNA. Cue evil laugh here from managers around the world.

New research, which involved a scientist from the Australian National University in Canberra, has found that queen bees and ants emit a chemical that alters the DNA of their daughters and keeps them as sterile and industrious workers.

Australian National University biologist Dr Luke Holman.
Australian National University biologist Dr Luke Holman. Photo: Supplied

That means the worker bees and ants will keep on toiling until they die, won't be distracted by having offspring and won't be allowed to indulge in anything approaching queenly behaviour that may result in a breakdown of the very controlled social order of the hive.

ANU biologist Dr Luke Holman suggested the pheromone emitted by the queens had a powerful effect, both when applied or withheld.

Advertisement

He liked to think of the pheromone as "kind of like an on/off switch".

"When deprived of the pheromone that queens emit, worker bees and ants become more self-centred and lazy, and they begin to lay eggs," he said.

"Amazingly, it looks like the queen pheromone works by chemically altering workers' genes."

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.

The pheromone was like a controlling agent to prevent anarchy breaking out in the queendom.

"With the queen pheromone present they know that their mum is around, she's still the queen, and she's still laying eggs and everything is going fine. When it's gone, usually means the queen has died or has become too old so they need to take over laying eggs of their own and they would much rather it be them doing it rather than one of the other workers in the colony, so they get a bit self-interested," he said.

Did it result in some fighting among the "princesses", the worker bees?

"It depends very much on the species, some bees and ants are more fighty than others but certainly they squabble to be the chief worker who lays most of the eggs and they do that by scrapping a little bit. So their usual harmony breaks down a little bit."

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.

He did his research on his parents' farm in rural England, in the village of Hemptonstall in West Yorkshire.

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 bees 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 co-operative behaviour, which in many ways is a step beyond human evolution," he said.

The research is published in Biology Letters.