Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Scent of a Queen Quells an Uprising by Her Subjects

Queen bees and ants emit a chemical that alters the DNA of their daughters and ensures they remain sterile and industrious workers.

“When deprived of the pheromone that queens emit, worker bees and ants become more self-centred and lazy, and they begin to lay eggs,” said Dr Luke Holman of The Australian National University. “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.

Recent research suggests that methylation of a baby bee or ant’s DNA helps to determine whether it develops into a queen or a worker.

Holman and co-workers from the University of Helsinki found evidence that workers exposed to the queen bee’s pheromones tag their DNA with methylation differently, and believe that this might suppress any queenly characteristics in the workers.

While the queen pheromone of honeybees seemed to lower methylation, the queen pheromone of ants seemed to increase it, suggesting that methylation works differently in bees and ants.

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

The research has been published in Biology Letters ( Holman will be 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 cooperative behaviour, which in many ways is a step beyond human evolution,” he said.