The Cocktail Queen Bees Use to Disease-Proof Their Babies

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September 29, 2015 | 21,399 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Queen bees inoculate all of their young via a process that begins with eating
  • She eats a substance known as royal jelly, which is created by digested pollen and nectar the worker bees gather each day
  • With the pollen and nectar, the queen also receives exposure to bacteria and pathogens in the worker bees’ environment.
  • When the queen bee ingests this mixture, she digests the bacteria and it is bound to a protein called vitellogenin, which is carried via the bloodstream to developing eggs
  • The babies are therefore inoculated before they’re born and enter the world already immune to diseases present in their environment

By Dr. Becker

Honeybees are amazing creatures of the insect world, helping to pollinate 87 of the top 115 food crops. Bees transfer pollen from plant to plant, which allows the plants to make seeds and reproduce. Without bees, many of the foods we love – from citrus fruits and broccoli to almonds and cantaloupe – would cease to exist. Not to mention raw honey…

Yet, their impressive contribution to the world's food supply is only oneof their many points of intrigue. If you could peek inside a honeybee hive, you'd see a highly organized society with each bee taking on a very specific role for the overall good of the hive.

The queen bee (there is only one per hive) also has the important job of transferring immunity to all of her babies, and a new study uncovered just how this remarkable feat is accomplished.

How Queen Bees 'Vaccinate' Their Babies

Research published in PLOS Pathogens found that queen bees inoculate all of their young via a process that begins with eating.1 The queen bee spends most of her life inside the hive, being brought meals by worker bees.

She eats a substance known as royal jelly, which is created by digested pollen and nectar the worker bees gather each day. But with the pollen and nectar, the queen also receives exposure to bacteria and pathogens in the worker bees' environment.

When the queen bee ingests this mixture, she digests the bacteria and stores them in an organ similar to the liver (called the "fat body"). The bacteria are then bound to a protein called vitellogenin and carried via the bloodstream to developing eggs. The babies are therefore inoculated before they're born and enter the world already immune to diseases present in their environment.2

The researchers are hopeful their discovery may help them provide protection to bees against diseases known to destroy hives. They hope to replicate the natural process using a "cocktail the bees would eat." Study co-author Gro Amdam of Arizona State University told Discovery News:3

"Because this vaccination process is naturally occurring, this process would be cheap and ultimately simple to implement. It has the potential to both improve and secure food production for humans."

Unfortunately, bees aren't only under attack from bacteria and viruses but also from human activities, including pesticide use. Discovery News further reported:4

"During the past six decades alone, managed honeybee colonies in the United States have declined from 6 million in 1947 to only 2.5 million today."

The Fascinating Caste System in a Bee Hive

The queen bee represents just one member of the hive, which may number close to 80,000 depending on the season. Worker bees represent the bulk of the hive, and they are all female (although they're sexually immature and not able to reproduce).

While the queen bee may live for several years, a worker bee lives for about six weeks in the summer or up to nine months in the winter. Each takes on a series of "chores" in its lifetime. According to the Backyard Beekeepers Association:5

"The worker bees sequentially take on a series of specific chores during their lifetime: housekeeper; nursemaid; construction worker; grocer; undertaker; guard; and finally, after 21 days they become a forager collecting pollen and nectar.

For worker bees, it takes 21 days from egg to emergence. The worker bee has a barbed stinger that results in her death following stinging, therefore, she can only sting once."

Each hive also has 300 to 3,000 drone bees, which are male bees kept for the purpose of mating with the queen. She only mates once (with several drone bees) and then is fertile for life, laying up to 2,000 eggs per day. If the queen bee dies, the worker bees will choose a new young female to take her place, raising her by feeding her royal jelly. National Geographic reported:6

"This elixir enables the worker to develop into a fertile queen. Queens also regulate the hive's activities by producing chemicals that guide the behavior of the other bees."

While the male drone bees have no stinger, they have a barbed sex organ and will die after mating. The male bees are also expelled from the hive in the autumn, as they're only needed for mating during the summer.7

Honeybees Are at Risk, Here's How You Can Help

Since 2006, US beekeepers have lost a striking 29.6 percent of their honeybee colonies annually due to a disease dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD). The condition causes bees to become disoriented, leaving their hives, and never returning.

Hives across the country have been decimated, and while there's still no definitive cause, pesticides, viruses, mites, fungi, and antibiotics may play a role.

The widespread use of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides, appears to be particularly damaging to bees, and last year a Harvard study concluded, "Neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD" in previously healthy honeybee hives.

It's also been suggested that CCD may weaken bees' immunity, leaving them vulnerable to other infections or parasites. If you'd like to help bees in your area, consider planting a bee-friendly garden. The Honeybee Conservancy recommends:8

  • Replacing part of your lawn with flowering plants
  • Selecting single flower tops, such as daisies and marigolds, which produce more nectar and are easier to access than double flower tops (such as double impatiens)
  • Planting at least three different types of flowers so you have a longer bloom time. For instance:
    • Crocus, hyacinth, borage, calendula, and wild lilac for spring blooms.
    • Bee balm, cosmos, echinacea, snapdragons, foxglove, and hosta for the summer.
    • Zinnias, sedum, asters, witch hazel, and goldenrod are late bloomers for fall.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 PLOS Pathogens July 31, 2015
  • 2, 3, 4 Discovery News July 31, 2015
  • 5, 7 Backyard Beekeepers Association, Facts About Honeybees
  • 6 National Geographic, Honeybee
  • 8 Honeybee Conservancy, Plant a Bee Garden