Bee-lieve it! Epigenetics Differentiates the Hive : Guest Post by NEB Scientist Rick Feehery

Keeping honeybees runs in our family. My wife’s father keeps many hives, his father kept hives, his father and so on. Our one hive this year produced over 30 pound of honey. Fresh honey is a real treat as the flavor stems from the local fauna: purple loosestrife and apple blossoms. Very different from what you get from the local food mart.

Aside from the obvious agricultural benefit that honeybee provides, pollination of plants in the food chain, they are really fascinating insects to observe. Every other year on average in the spring time when the weather is warm and the sky is clear, we can hear a district loud buzzing sound from the hive. A mass exodus of bees starts pouring out of the hive—a swarm! They will hover just above the hive for a few minutes, and then alight on an adjacent tree branch or crook. If we are lucky and catch the hive swarming, we can actually gather the swarm up and dump the bees into a new hive where they will take up residence.

The swarm that we observe in the late springtime is actually the culmination of a process that started many weeks earlier. When the hive becomes overcrowded, the worker bees decide to make a new queen. The process begins when the workers choose several small larvae and feed them with copious amounts of a substance called royal jelly in specially constructed queen cells, placed at the bottom of the bee frames. This type of feeding triggers the development of queen morphology, including the fully developed ovaries needed to lay eggs.

Royal jelly is a honey bee secretion that is used in the nutrition of larvae, as well as adult queens. It is secreted from the glands in the hypopharynx of worker bees, and fed to all larvae in the colony, whether they are destined to become drones (males), workers (sterile females) or queens (fertile females). After three days, the drone and worker larvae are no longer fed with royal jelly, but queen larvae continue to be fed this special substance throughout their development. (1)

The component of royal jelly that causes a bee to develop into a queen appears to be a single protein , royalactin. It is believed that royalactin silences the expression of an enzyme that methylates DNA: DNMT 1 and DMNT 3a. All bees in the hive, including the queen, are clones of each other. They have identical DNA sequences, but they are strongly differentiated across a wide range of characteristics. Silencing the expression of these enzymes that methylates DNA in newly hatched larvae led the majority of individuals with reduced DNA methylation levels to emerge as queens with fully developed ovaries. This finding suggests that DNA methylation in honey bees allows the expression of epigenetic information to be differentially altered by nutritional input. (2, 3)

So these fascinating creatures are a clear example of how food affects DNA methylation in growth and development, and why it is so important to have good nutrition for humans as well.

  1. Winston, M, The Biology of the Honey Bee, 1987, Harvard University Press
  2. Kucharski R, Maleszka, J, Foret, S, Maleszka, R, Nutritional Control of Reproductive Status in Honeybees via DNA Methylation. Science. 2008 Mar 28;319(5871):1827-3 Kamakura, M. (2011).
  3. Royalactin induces queen differentiation in honeybees“. Nature 473 (7348): 478–483. doi:10.1038/nature10093. PMID 21516106.

Photo of queen bee by Kairon Gnothi (opportunity knocks), through a creative commons license.

Kamakura M (2011). Royalactin induces queen differentiation in honeybees. Nature, 473 (7348), 478-83 PMID: 21516106

This entry was posted in Animal Models, DNA Methylation, Methyltransferases, Nutrigenomics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bee-lieve it! Epigenetics Differentiates the Hive : Guest Post by NEB Scientist Rick Feehery

  1. Bees and epigenetics are fascinating. Mark Bedford, a professor in my old department recently published a paper identifying a particular compound with HDAC inhibitor activity in royal jelly that controls queen bee status. Check it out

  2. Zen Faulkes says:

    “All bees in the hive, including the queen, are clones of each other. They have identical DNA sequences(.)”

    I don’t think that’s correct, even if just considering females.

    The queen is diploid, and undergoes normal mitosis to generate eggs, so each eggs share 50% of their genes on average. Drones are haploid, so their sperm is genetically identical. So, sister workers are more genetically related (~75%) to each other, typically, than we are to our siblings (~50%).

    But that’s a long way from the 100% similarity of clones.

  3. Nicole Kelesoglu says:
    New video interview of Rick Feehery, Research Associate at New England Biolabs, Inc, explaining the mechanisms of epigenetic DNA modification. To drive home the power of such tiny changes, he uses the example of honeybee colonies, wherein DNA methylation is the only factor that determines whether a bee is born a worker, drone or queen.

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