Hive of activity how genes turn bees into workers and queens

Biologists have discovered that one of nature’s most important pollinators - the buff-tailed bumblebee – either ascends to the land of milk and honey by becoming a queen or remains a lowly worker bee based on which genes are ‘turned on’ during its lifespan.

The paper, which is published in the journal Molecular Ecology, suggests that the development of an individual bumblebee into its designated caste of male, worker or queen depends on the activation of individual genes, despite the bees all sharing similar genomes.

The team analysed which genes were ‘turned on’ in males, workers and queens of the buff-tailed bumblebee at different developmental stages to understand how the same genomes can produce such different castes.

The findings suggest that differentiation is not caused by inherited genetic difference, as is typical of most species of animal, meaning that males, which hatch from unfertilised eggs, are genetically very similar to their sisters.

In the future, the researchers hope to find out whether or not a different version of the same gene can lead to a female developing into a queen rather than a worker and wish to better understand how expression patterns are inherited in animals.

The study is part of student Mark Harrison’s PhD thesis and was supervised by Drs Eamonn Mallon and Rob Hammond from the Department of Biology.