Queen Bees "Brainwash" Workers With Chemicals

Anne Casselman
for National Geographic News
July 19, 2007

The queen honeybee would give Cinderella's wicked stepmother a run for her money.

A new study suggests the domineering matriarch regulates her daughters' brain activity to ensure her own survival.

"This is the first demonstration of [the queen's] pheromones acting directly on the brain," said study co-author Alison Mercer, a zoologist from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. "The fact that it's affecting the learning abilities of the young bees is unexpected."

The Controlling Type

The queen bee produces a pheromone from a gland near her jaws. Pheromones are chemicals found in animals that trigger a behavioral response in another animal of that species.

One of the parts of the pheromone is homovanillyl alcohol (HVA). It interacts with a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is found in the brains of insects and animals. In a mechanism that's still not understood, the pheromone may be able to block dopamine and prevent the young worker bees from avoiding negative stimuli. Worker bees—which surround and dote on the queen—are all female, and drone bees are male.

(Related: "No Reproductive Rights in Insect "Police States," Study Finds" [November 1, 2006].)

To test the theory, Mercer and colleagues exposed test bees to the pheromone. The team found these bees could not learn to associate specific smells with negative stimuli—in this case, mild electric shocks delivered by the researchers.

Mercer speculates that the queen bee herself might be a negative stimulus.

"It turns out the queen is completely blocking out the ability of the young bees to make an association between signals in their environment and any nasty outcome," Mercer said.

As these young worker bees age, however, the pheromone no longer has control over them—a mystery still being investigated by researchers.

The study appears in tomorrow's journal Science.

Continued on Next Page >>


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