Making a queen: an epigenetic analysis of the robustness of the honeybee (Apis mellifera) queen developmental pathway

Xu Jiang He, Lin Bin Zhou, Qi Zhong Pan, Andrew B. Barron, Wei Yu Yan, Zhi Jiang Zeng*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    28 Citations (Scopus)


    Specialized castes are considered a key reason for the evolutionary and ecological success of the social insect lifestyle. The most essential caste distinction is between the fertile queen and the sterile workers. Honeybee (Apis mellifera) workers and queens are not genetically distinct, rather these different phenotypes are the result of epigenetically regulated divergent developmental pathways. This is an important phenomenon in understanding the evolution of social insect societies. Here, we studied the genomic regulation of the worker and queen developmental pathways, and the robustness of the pathways by transplanting eggs or young larvae to queen cells. Queens could be successfully reared from worker larvae transplanted up to 3 days age, but queens reared from older worker larvae had decreased queen body size and weight compared with queens from transplanted eggs. Gene expression analysis showed that queens raised from worker larvae differed from queens raised from eggs in the expression of genes involved in the immune system, caste differentiation, body development and longevity. DNA methylation levels were also higher in 3-day-old queen larvae raised from worker larvae compared with that raised from transplanted eggs identifying a possible mechanism stabilizing the two developmental paths. We propose that environmental (nutrition and space) changes induced by the commercial rearing practice result in a suboptimal queen phenotype via epigenetic processes, which may potentially contribute to the evolution of queen–worker dimorphism. This also has potentially contributed to the global increase in honeybee colony failure rates.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1598-1607
    Number of pages10
    JournalMolecular Ecology
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017


    • DNA methylation
    • epigenetic analysis
    • gene expression
    • honeybee
    • immunity
    • queen


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