The gut bacteria (gut microbiomes) are generally transmitted through the maternal line, in contrast with the findings of the honey bee (Apis mellifera). Study co-author Irene L.G. Newton, also an assistant professor of biology at the University of Indiana said, “In the case of the honey bee, we found that the microbiome in queen bees did not reflect those of worker bees — not even the progeny of the queen or her attendants. In fact, queen bees lack many of the bacterial groups that are considered to be core to worker microbiomes.”
Unlike most other mammals, including human beings, honey bees’ gut bacteria transmission takes place through the insect’s environment and social context, which is referred to as horizontal transmission. Thus, the striking differences between queen bee and worker bee diet and environment are reflected in the microbiome. Queens usually consume protein-laden royal jelly and have very limited exposure to the outside world and the rest of the comb, besides her nest. Workers by contrast feed on “bee bread” and travel about quite a bit.
“In some ways, the development of the queen microbiome mirrors that of workers, with larval queens’ associated bacteria resembling those found in worker larvae,” Newton said. “But, by the time they mature, queens have developed a microbial signature distinct from the rest of the colony.”
Honey production and bee-keeping is a multi-million dollar business thanks to the many uses and benefits of honey. Bee keepers sometimes remove a queen bee and transfer them to new hives. Based on this study, such practices may not have a detrimental effect on colony health.
“Because the queen microbiome does not reflect the workers within a specific colony, the physical movement of queens from one colony environment to another does not seem to have any major effects on either the queen gut or worker gut communities,” Newton said.
The study titled “Characterization of the honey bee microbiome throughout the queen-rearing process” was published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, in February 2015.