Scientists from the University of Sydney (Australia) have completed a 30-year search for a single gene that gives Apis mellifera capensis bees the unique ability to reproduce without a queen in a hive. Also known as the Cape Bees, this South African bee does not produce queens or drones — instead, each worker bee can lay larvae. This ability gives them great competitive strength, but also creates a lot of problems.
Cape bees have enlarged ovaries, which allows each individual to reincarnate into a queen if necessary, and also includes the ability to secrete royal pheromones. In a normal situation, when there is already a queen in the hive, they live like all bees. But if the queen dies, all the bees are overwhelmed with ambition and begin to compete who will become the new queen. This weakens the hive, but not for long, and the strongest, but losing bees scatter around the neighborhood and occupy other hives.
Scientists see this as a unique and dangerous version of social parasitism, when yesterday's worker, by activating the queen gene with the help of pheromones, subjugates the bees of another hive. They begin to perceive her as a new queen, and she eventually becomes her, but she still lays eggs herself, without fertilization by drones. This is a very effective strategy, as it reduces the amount of resources required for the survival of the hive, plus gives it a chance to respawn even if only a few common bees remain.
The only gene that confers this ability on Cape bees is GB45239. It is located on the 11th chromosome and scientists are now meticulously studying exactly how it works. Their task is to understand if we can manage this process.
"There are advantages to gender separation and conception by mating two individuals, but breeding without mating is much more beneficial in terms of competition and survival in a hostile environment, " said Professor Benjamin Oldroyd of the University of Sydney.