How lowly female honeybees can be reborn as pampered queens

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London, Apr 1 : The miserable and toiling life of the lowly female Cape honeybees can be reincarnated as royalty, at least that's what a new research suggests.

According to Madeleine Beekman of the University of Sydney in Australia, who calls this phenomenon 'genetic reincarnation', these lowly female workers from South Africa are sometimes reborn as pampered queens.

This is possible because the worker bee's DNA can be reincarnated as a queen in a kind of asexual reproduction known as parthenogenesis.

"It's quite mind-blowing, really," New Scientist quoted Seirian Sumner, a social insect specialist at the Institute of Zoology in London, who was not involved in the study, as saying.

In the honeybee world, and in those of other social insects, the queen pumps out eggs, while those in worker castes are sterile, and live merely to raise her offspring.

But in many species of bees, female workers lay unfertilised eggs, which, if allowed, will hatch into male bees. This behaviour is frowned upon, and "police" workers destroy many of these illicit eggs.

Cape honeybee workers, however, can spawn females through parthenogenesis, also known as virgin birth. If the larva receives the right coaxing - including a diet of royal jelly - it will develop into a queen, genetically identical to the lowly worker.

To determine the prevalence of worker reincarnation, the research team analyzed the DNA of Cape honeybees from seven colonies in South Africa.

Surprisingly, nearly two thirds of the queens led previous existences as workers.

To distinguish between natural born queens and the reincarnated kind, the researchers swapped queens between hives. This way, the queen's eggs were genetically distinct from her workers' sneakily laid eggs.

The researchers also discovered that most of the reincarnated queens - 15 out of 23 - were the offspring of worker bees from another hive. The foreign bees fooled the workers into coronating their eggs.

"By deciding not to police and not to remove worker-laid eggs, you are leaving the door wide open," said Sumner.

The study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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