We know that some bee larvae develop into queens and other bee larvae develop into workers because they were fed differently. Until now we didn’t know what “ingredient” in the food made queens. It turns out to be not an additive but an absence that makes workers.

P-coumaric acid is an acid present in many plants. We eat it all the time. It’s in wine and vinegar, tomatoes and carrots, peanuts and flaxseed. Bees eat it all the time too, because its one of the components of honey and bee pollen. But some bees go without this compound, at least for their entire larval development. They are called queens.

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This is more of a revelation than it seems to be. For a long time, researchers understood that queen bees developed differently because they were fed royal jelly, which comes from the glands of other bees, instead of honey and pollen. Most people thought it was some component of royal jelly that caused that development. Some special ingredient caused a special third of their genes to express themselves, and another third of their genes to shut off, causing the physical changes that allowed them to transform from worker to queen. It looks like we got it the wrong way around. If a bee is to be a queen, not a worker, she has to be denied (or spared from) a special ingredient, not fed a special ingredient. Each female bee might be a queen, until she’s fed the wrong thing.

[Source: A dietary phytochemical alters caste determination gene expression in honey bees]

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Image:Terry Harrison, U. of I. beekeeper