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What Makes a Queen Bee? One Special Protein, Apparently

What’s the News: It’s long been known that a female bee’s place in the social order—whether she becomes a worker or a queen—depends not on her genes, but on whether she eats royal jelly. A study published in Nature found that royalactin, a protein found in royal jelly, is responsible for many of the physical differences that distinguish queens from the hoi polloi of the hive—and, surprisingly, that royalactin can even cause fruit flies to develop queen bee-like traits. This finding also shines light on how, at a cellular level, royal jelly turns bees into queens.

How the Heck:

  • The researcher, Masaki Kamakura, stored royal jelly at just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, for one, two, or three weeks, or thirty days, then fed it to be larvae. The bees raised on royal jelly that had been heated for 30 days developed into regular worker bees, suggesting that whatever ingredient of royal jelly turns bees into queens broke down shortly before those 30 days were up. Judging by how long different compounds in royal jelly last, this pointed to royalactin as the key ingredient.
  • When the researcher fed bees on purified royalactin—along with some necessary nutrients—they grew into queens, just like royal jelly-fed bees did.
  • Next, he raised houseflies on royal jelly or the royalactin-based diet. Like queen bees, they were bigger, more fertile, and longer lived than their commoner counterparts.
  • Mutant flies lacking the protein EGFR, which recognizes certain growth factor, didn’t develop regal features when fed royalactin, suggesting a possible mechanism by which royalactin works.

What’s the Context:

  • All honeybees eat royal jelly for the first three days after the hatch, but only the queens-to-be continue to eat it, while other bees switch to a diet based on honey.
  • Decades ago, scientists suggested the queen-maker in this royal ambrosia might be a hormone or neurohormone, rather than a protein, but didn’t find strong evidence to support those ideas.
  • Some people try to tap into the appearance-altering properties of royal jelly—as yet unproven in our species—using dietary supplements and anti-aging face creams

Not So Fast:

  • While entomologist Gro Amdam called the study “awesome,” simply adding a caveat, in speaking to The Great BeyondNature‘s news blog, against “falling in love with a single explanation,” not all scientists think royalactin is the key to queenliness. “There are dozens of potentially important components in royal jelly and giving a special rank to one of them is misleading,” biologist Ryszard Maleszka told the blog.