This is an expanded post built on a pre-interview* task I completed recently – I found the material quite interesting and thought a few of my hymenoptera-fan friends would enjoy it!
In a honeybee colony, the queen is the centre of attention. She needs constant maintenance from her worker babies in order to remain happy, healthy and productive. How does she make sure they’re loyal and hardworking? 2007 Research from Professor Alison Mercer‘s lab at the University of Otago, New Zealand, offers some explanation.
Queen bees produce a cocktail of chemicals called the Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP), which attracts her young worker progeny and entices them to groom her. However, prolonged exposure to QMP can have some nasty side-effects and older workers actively avoid her for this very reason.
Previous work from bee researchers has shown that dopamine – a chemical produced in the brain that affects learning in many kinds of animals – is important in bees’ responses to negative experiences. Normally when we encounter something unpleasant, we learn to avoid it in future. So, if we have stressful times at home with our parents, we might be more likely to stay away! This is known as aversive learning.
What Alison’s group showed is that dopamine signalling in young worker bees’ brains seems to be blocked by QMP. So, even though being around mum constantly isn’t much fun for them, they are incapable of making an association between the smell of QMP and those experiences, because of this effect on their brain’s dopamie. So they stick around.
It seems we should be thankful our parents don’t drug us in order to keep us at home. At least, we assume they don’t!
Expanding upon this summary (as restricted by a tricky little word limit), this does actually benefit the colony as a whole. While the young workers are affected by QMP, the older members of the colony are not. These older bees are therefore free to leave the hive and do all the other important bee-things (like finding food), rather than simply fawning over their queen 24/7. Further research also suggests that the time of first exposure to QMP is also an important factor, determining whether the bees will continue to respond positively or negatively to it. So not all of the workers will be trapped in the attendant role.
I shall leave you with this nice sentence from the 2009 paper. We may have lots left to learn about bees, but these things certainly remind us that we are part of a web of related life forms. Embrace (perhaps not literally) your insect relatives!
* If you’re wondering, nope, I didn’t get the job.
Hey, who wants to hire me?! I’m nice, my skills are varied (from gel electrophoresis to the ability to make impossibly tiny flapping origami birds, telling the difference between frogs and toads, and typing very very fast), I like learning new stuff (ergo am perfect for the post even if I lack some experience) and… I do have a PhD, but so does everyone, it seems. Sigh.