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Queen Bees and Ants Control Workers By Emitting a Special Pheromone, Researchers Say

Jan 29, 2016 12:55 PM EST
Queen bees keep tabs on "princesses" by emitting a DNA-altering pheromone that makes them sterile, thus ensuring they remain workers of the colony.
(Photo : Flickr: Nick Watton)

Queen bees and ants assert dominance over their colonies and keep "princesses" -- or female offspring of the queen, the vast majority of any colony -- in check by emitting a chemical that alters the DNA of their daughters. This ensures offspring are sterile and remain busy workers of the colony, according to a new study from the Australian National University (ANU).

"When deprived of the pheromone that queens emit, worker bees and ants become more self-centered and lazy, and they begin to lay eggs," Dr. Luke Holman, lead researcher from ANU, said in a news release.

Queen bees and ants are able to have hundreds of thousands of offspring and live for many years. Workers, on the other hand, are short-lived and mostly sterile - even though they have the same DNA as the queen. Researchers suggest that a chemical modification to a baby bee or ant's DNA, called DNA methylation, ultimately determines whether it grows to be a queen or a worker.

Working alongside colleagues from the University of Helsinki, researchers investigated whether the queen's pheromone altered DNA methylation in workers. Their findings confirm workers exposed to pheromones tag their DNA with methylation differently, preventing queen-like traits from developing.

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

Surprisingly, however, 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, adding that he is looking forward to studying Australian bees next, which evolved sociality independently from the European species.

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

Their study was recently published in the journal Biology Letters.

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