It is a classic coming-of-age story, in many ways.
A honey bee hatches and grows up deep inside a hive. Surrounded by 40,000 of her closest relatives, this dark and constantly buzzing place is all that she knows. Only after she turns 21 days old does she leave the nest to look for pollen and nectar. For her, this is a moment of great risk, and great reward.
It’s also the moment at which she becomes recognizable to other bees, according to new research from Washington University in St. Louis. A study in the journal eLife reports that honey bees (Apis mellifera) develop different scent profiles as they age, and the gatekeeper bees at the hive’s door respond differently to returning foragers than they do when they encounter younger bees who have never ventured out before.
This work offers new insight into one of the most important interactions in the lives of social insects: recognizing self and other.
Until this point, most bee researchers thought bees recognize and respond to a scent that is the homogenized scent of all of the members of their own colony. That’s how it works for some ants and other insects, at least. But new work from the laboratory of Yehuda Ben-Shahar, associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, shows that nestmate recognition instead depends on an innate developmental process that is associated with age-dependent division of labor. The work was completed in collaboration with researchers from the lab of Joel Levine at the University of Toronto.