New pheromone creates buzz about the clout of older bees

EAST LANSING, Mich. A recent discovery unveils the chemical secret that gives old bees the authority to keep young bees home babysitting instead of going out on the town.

A hard-to-detect pheromone explains a phenomenon Michigan State University entomologist Zachary Huang published 12 years ago that somehow older forager bees exert influence over the younger nurse bees in a hive, keeping them grounded until they are more mature, and thus more ready to handle the demands of buzzing about.

The work that identifies the chemical, "Regulation of Behavioral Maturation in Honey Bees by a New Primer Pheromone" is publishing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Biological Sciences, Population Biology, Early Edition the week of Nov. 29.

"If the older ones don't keep them in check, the young ones can mature too quickly," Huang said. "It's kind of the same thing as with people, you need the elders to check on the young, even if the young are physically able to go out on their own, it's not the best situation for anybody and now we know how it works."

Huang worked with a team that spanned from the United States, France and Canada to explain how the bees kept an exquisitely consistent balance between the ones that go out to collect nectar and pollen and defend the hive, and those that stay home and nurture the larvae. Huang had documented that this balance is controlled by the elder bees, those that typically spend the final one to three weeks of their five-week lifespan out in the field.

Experiments showed that if a significant number of forager bees didn't come home, the young nurse bees would mature ahead of schedule and head out to become foragers themselves. If the older bees were kept inside more than usual as in an extended rain shower fewer young bees would mature, but instead stick to brood care.

But the question was always, why? Pheromones are a chemical signal emitted by animals, insects and human


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