Nature vs Nurture: For bees, you are what you eat

What did this bee eat?

Kids come out liking chocolate, hating pacifiers, with a personality.  Or do they?  Does a baby like a pacifier just because someone sticks one in her mouth? Is it nature or nurture that makes us who we are?

The debate is endless but it seems pretty clear that some third way is how it happens.  We’re born with a set of genes and some get turned on and others don’t.  This week, research on bees opens a window onto how  that happens.  In particular, on how bees’ diet determines whether or not a bee turns into a worker or a queen. What a bee eats — or is fed — decides its fate.  Nurture changes nature. Enticing, right?

Here’s what happens  (as I understand it –for the full story go here, link via Science Daily).  Honeybee larvae have identical genes.  They’re all fed something called royal jelly, which is produced by the mouth glands of young nurse bees, but larvae which become queens get fed a lot of royal jelly over a long period of time.  Worker bees get switched to a diet of pollen and nectar pretty early on.   As a result, the bees that all started the same  become different.  They still have the same genes, but some genes become more important than others under the influence of diet, and that royal jelly, pollen and nectar change everything about the bees turn out —  what they do, whether or not they reproduce, how long they live.

Queen bees “live for years, produce up to 2,000 eggs on a summer day, and never visit flowers (or engage in any activity resembling “work”), while the sterile workers typically live only for weeks, during which they engage in a series of specialisations from cleaning comb cells, tending brood, constructing wax combs, guarding the hive entrance, and, finally, foraging for various commodities such as nectar, pollen, water, and resin.”

Researchers make the point that even though queen bees seem to have it super good, worker bees still can do things queens can’t.  Plus, no one knows why some larvae get bathed in royal jelly and others don’t.  There’s a whole heck of a lot researchers haven’t figured out , but the takeaway remains that diet in bees changes a bee’s destiny.

It’s almost irresistible to extrapolate all kinds of things from this story. You know, one might want to say something like breast milk must be like royal jelly and formula like the pollen and nectar the worker bees get, but let’s not go there. For one, it would mean formula were part of the human food system from the earliest days of humans. Similarly, let’s hope that we don’t see something called “Royal Jelly” on the shelves of Whole Foods next month.  For me, it’s exciting enough to see an example of how nature and nurture work together in bees.  I can only imagine what goes on for us humans.

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