We take a look at how honey bee genetics and epigenetics helps in deciding roles in the hive.
To bee human
Like humans, honey bees are social creatures. Like humans, they choose to live their lives in societies; sharing knowledge and expertise for the good of the hive. Like modern day humans, honey bees are organised into specialist work forces that are responsible for ensuring the proper running of the society. So, are humans… the same as bees?
Not so fast honey
So, what’s different? Well for a start, men are not unfertilised eggs. AND, we will not live 45x as long as anyone else if we eat well. AND we are unlikely to ever eat our way into the royal family. But for the honeybee (Apis mellifera), these facts are trivial facts of life.
It's common for honey bee genetics to be identical for all individuals living in the same hive. Imagine living in a town with 30,000 identical copies of you… creepy… but for honey bees this is just part of everyday life. So, who decides who does what? Well part of it comes down to whether you are male or female. Something that is thankfully disappearing from human societies.
Sex really depends on how you define it
For humans, whether you are male or female is defined by which sex chromosomes you have. If you are male you have one X and one Y chromosome (XY) and if you are female you have two X chromosomes (XX). We each have 23 chromosomes and we have two copies of each (one from our mum and one from our dad).
In the case of honey bees, it’s a bit different. Males are born without a dad, they are born from unfertilised eggs. As such, they only having one copy of their genome. These males are called drones. In contrast females have a mum and a dad and so they have two copies of their genome. Ok, so if men are called drones, what are honey bee females called? Well this is where it gets more complicated…
To bee or not to bee queen
There are two types of female, the majority are sterile female workers but there is one that will become the queen. What’s so great about being queen? Well, in honey bees, the queen is the only individual in the hive capable of reproducing, she’s also far bigger than all of the other bees, she doesn’t have to run around collecting pollen and if that wasn’t enough she gets to live up to 45 times longer than all the other bees!! Put in context, you may now be thinking that being a human queen is perhaps a bit of a let-down.
So, what decides who becomes queen? We know that all female honey bees are genetically identical, so it can’t be down to differences in their DNA… Well it turns out that queen bees are not born queens but are a product of their environment. Queens become queens because of nurture NOT nature.
Jelly fit for a queen
Queen bees from a young age feed on the delicious diet of royal jelly, whilst the sterile female workers are fed bee gruel. So, what does this royal jelly do? This royal jelly contains important nutrients that allow the queen to develop into the regal reproductive machine she will become. But how? Well, all this fantastic royal jelly nutrition results in changes to the queen’s epigenetics. Epigenetics is the science of how your genes are controlled and expressed. In other words, the road to royalty starts with epigenetics.
Pollution: bee careful
Not only this, but recent studies have also shown that bathing in royal jelly may function to protect the queen from toxic pollutants (or phytochemicals) and that this may be the key to the queen being able to reproduce when workers can’t. Additionally, research is now suggesting that one of the reasons for the global decline in honey bees around the world could be due to changing environmental conditions and global warming, which may affect the quality of her diet.
But I will never bee a queen
Ok, so what does this have to do with anything? None of us are going to become queen bees and we are unlikely to live for 4,500 years. BUT we as humans are still hugely affected by our environment and the world around us. Scientists have known for many years now that the environment we live in and how we choose to live affects how long we live. For instance, we know that there are pockets of the world where people live to be 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States. These regions have been named Blue Zones.
Living like a queen
So, what can we do to ensure we live healthy and happy for as long as possible? The answer starts with knowing. Imagine being able to map how different aspects of your environment and lifestyle are affecting you today. And imagine being able to use this information to act proactively to stay fit and healthy. This is not science-fiction, this is science-reality through the science of epigenetics. Sure, we may never become queens but who wants that… We can live healthier and happier for longer — all we need to do is understand how.