The science journal PLOS Genetics published a study that reveals why some honeybees don’t develop into queens. It’s simply a matter of diet. “Bee bread,” or a mix of pollen and honey, has a molecular structure that actually causes physical development within larvae. Royal jelly, which is a secretion from nurse bees, has the same properties. It’s bee bread that makes larvae become worker bees, while royal jelly turns larvae into queens.
Queen bees live for a much longer time than worker bees. They can also reproduce, while worker bees are sterile. Within the hive, worker bees also take care of larvae and gather food.
It has been a long-established fact that royal jelly is made of a nutrient-rich combination of protein and sugar. However, new research has discovered a critical component called microRNA. microRNAs come from plants, where it regulates how large and colorful they are. These molecular ingredients are transferred to bees through bee bread. It works at the genetic level to delay the maturing process and sterilize the bees that consume it.
A specific bee gene called TOR determines the caste structure of a hive. This gene is affected by the components of the more common microRNAs that exist in bee bread. Larvae that feed on bee bread have smaller bodies and smaller ovaries, which are the physical traits of worker bees.
In the last ten years, honeybees have been dying off at a large rate. This disturbing trend has not yet been explained, but the discovery of microRNAs may hold the answer. The plants that are better at attracting bee foragers have microRNAs that make them bigger and more colorful.
Plants and bees have evolved to co-exist and support each other. It’s microRNAs that affect bee development, which in turn determines the pollen they spread and which plants grow as a result.
Not only could microRNAs help save honeybees, it could have implications for human health as well. Treating cancer or allergic reactions might be made easier, simply by knowing more about the biological processes of the little honeybee.