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What makes a Queen?


Here's a little example that showcases how astounding Nature is, and the interplay between nature and nurture. 

Take a look at the picture above.


Male bees (known as drones) are, as you might expect, genetically different from female bees(workers), and you see the difference in their appearance above. The physical difference translates to a difference in their functions - drones leave the hive in search of food, while workers largely stay in the hive, managing food conversion and storage (and also their functions and capabilities).


What’s really interesting is when we compare the female Queen Bee with the female Worker Bee.
Amazingly, the worker bee and queen bee are genetically IDENTICAL. Yet the worker bee is smaller, lives for weeks to months instead of the 3-4 years of a queen bee. Not to mention the difference in status and function - the queen is the matriarch and mother to future generations.

How is it possible that 2 genetically identical bees can end up so different?

The answer lies with epigenetics, environmental factors which cause genes to be expressed differently. 

In the case of bees, this comes in the form of "royal" jelly. Yes, that gooey capsule thing you might buy at the beauty store. While all female larvae are fed royal jelly in the first few days after birth, some females are fed royal jelly exclusively thereafter, while the other females go on to a mixture of pollen and honey.


Which larvae are chosen to be fed just royal jelly? From our understanding at present, this seems to be completely random.

Eventually, the first of those fed royal jelly will hatch to become the queen. This first-to-hatch bee will systematically go about killing her yet-to-hatch competition.

So hearing this story, you might think royal jelly is that magical elixir that makes royalty, shaping the fortune of a bee from worker to queen. (No wonder royal jelly it has become a health supplement)

But this is an incorrect depiction. The bigger reason why those that are fed royal jelly become queens (or potential queens) is not due to the royal jelly itself. Instead, because they consume only royal jelly, they avoid consuming honey and especially pollen. It is the absence of pollen rather than the royal jelly per see that makes a female a queen.

So is royal jelly really a useful supplement? You can Google the answer, but what’s amusing is, I’m sure if the correct story had been portrayed (queen = absence of pollen, and not the presence of royal jelly), it will be far less popular.

This is a very useful example for us to understand nature vs nurture. Genes differentiate females and males in the world of bees. But it is diet (specifically what you don’t eat) that differentiates between all the genetically identical females.

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