Life Science Blog

Immortal queens and deceptive pawns

January 14, 2008

No, it’s not a medieval legend or a chess game – it’s a bee colony in South Africa. A recent study on the Cape Bee subspecies (Apis mellifera capensis) shows that workers can produce female offspring, meaning they can produce new, genetically-similar queens to replace their queen.

“If workers manage to be the mother of the next queen, [their] success in terms of fitness is enormous,” wrote Madeleine Beekman, a researcher on the Australian team, via email. “In non-Cape bee colonies workers can only produce male eggs. Hence these workers will never be able to produce a new queen.”

Things don’t remain entirely within the family, however. The majority of the new queens spawned from workers were actually offspring of parasitic worker bees, which invaded foreign hives to spread their own genetic material. But as in all good fairy tales, the queen has a secret weapon – she can clone herself to produce new “princesses” who compete with the working-class queens. Even in the hive, it’s no easy feat to become the queen bee.

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