Study Figures Out Why Queen Bees Become Queens

Terry Harrison
Terry Harrison / Terry Harrison

Honeybee nests contain two types of residents: the queen and her workers. But what determines what makes a queen (the only bee who reproduces in the colony) versus a sterile worker bee?

A plant-based chemical fed to bee larvae is responsible for whether they become workers or queens, according to a new study in the journal Science Advances. Honeybee colonies have nurse bees, who feed the young larvae as they develop. Future queens are fed a special substance secreted by the worker bees, called royal jelly, while worker-destined larvae receive a mixture of other foods. 

Scientists knew that queens are typically fed royal jelly for much longer than worker bee larvae, which receive the jelly for three days before their diet is switched to a combination of royal jelly, honey, and pollen. On her fancy all-jelly diet, the future queen grows faster and bigger than future workers. Now, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have determined why.

The study found that a chemical in honey and pollen called p-coumaric acid is responsible for the change in genetic expression that differentiates the larvae that grow into queens capable of reproduction from the smaller, sterile worker bees. When the larva destined for servitude as a worker is fed that mixture of honey and pollen, it changes the expression of certain genes, changing the bee’s DNA. When the queen-destined larva is fed only royal jelly, she is not exposed to p-coumaric acid, and develops differently from the workers as a result.