Two bees or not two bees? Researchers take first look at the genetic differences between queen and worker honeybees

January 08, 2001

For the first time scientists have been able to examine the genetic processes that decide whether a juvenile bee is destined for life as a worker or as a queen. By stringing together a series of images that describe which genes are active, researchers at the Bee Research Laboratory, Maryland, and the University of Arizona have been able to picture exactly how hormones triggered by environmental and nutritional influences cause larvae to activate the genes necessary to fulfil their destiny.

Female honeybees, Apis mellifera, begin life as bipotential larva with the capability to develop into one of two castes, either worker or queen. "The ability of young from the same species to differentiate into different castes is known as polyphenism", says Dr Jay Evans from the Bee Research Laboratory in a new research article due to be published in the January issue of Genome Biology next week. "This is the first genomic-scale view of such polyphenic development," he continues.

The researchers used gene-expression profiles, known as arrays, to establish exactly which genes were active as the larvae developed. From the outset, the team found that those larvae destined to become queen bees appeared to down-regulate some of the genes characteristic of bipotential larva and switch on a distinct set of caste-related genes, including genes responsible for metabolism and respiration. Worker bees, they found, continued to express more of the genes typical of the juvenile larva. This difference in gene expression is thought to lead to a difference in the size and function of organs that gives the upper hand to queen bees as they develop.

"This may reflect the costs of a high-stakes race between queen and larvae to develop quickly and gain direct fitness as heads of the colony," says Evans. "Developing queens that emerge first, even if only by a matter of hours, almost always beat rival queens in gaining control of colony reproduction."

Such polyphenic studies are useful because they reflect the effects of external stimuli on an important fork between different developmental pathways, exploring both the functional and evolutionary relationships. In future studies, the team hope to analyse the expression of genes after applying specific hormones to the larvae in order to gain a greater understanding of the processes involved.
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Notes for editors
  1. Expression profiles during honeybee caste determination, by Jay D Evans Bee Research Lab, Diana E Wheeler University of Arizona. Genome Biology 2000 2(1)

  2. Bee Research Laboratory

  3. Genome Biology is a new forum for biologists working in the post-genomic era and regularly publishes research, reviews, commentary and analysis both online and in a monthly print journal. All of the research articles that we publish are available free of charge through our website, are listed in MEDLINE and can be accessed in full through PubMed. To find out more visit:

BioMed Central

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