Queen Bees "Brainwash" Workers With Chemicals

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No Way Out

Studies have shown that bees avoid the queen's pheromones in high doses—too much and the worker bees become more aggressive. But the "brainwashing" pheromone may be keeping the workers from learning that being near their queen is unpleasant.

"If the young bees could build up an aversion to their own queen, they'd stop looking after her, and that would be to the detriment of the colony," Mercer said.

The pheromone could be the queen's insurance against the young workers rebelling, Mercer said. It's in the interests of both the colony and the queen that she has survival tools.

This begs the question of what effect the pheromone has on the queen herself, who is immobilized as a baby machine during her reign.

"It's important that she doesn't build up an aversion to any colony odors, otherwise she'd abscond from the hive," Mercer said.

The queen bee birthed all the workers, and all the workers are sisters, sharing half of their DNA. "Supersisters" share the same father and 75 percent of their DNA. (Related: "Bee Sex Gene Find Helps Solve 150-Year-Old Riddle" [September 8, 2003].)

Mark Winston, a biologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, is unaffiliated with the study.

He's not sure that a dulled reaction to negative stimuli entirely explains why a young worker bee would stay close to her queen. Winston would like to see a future study take place inside the hive.

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