The ability to create bee "super queens" that can shrug off disease has arisen from the discovery of how royal jelly works.

A study of royal jelly, the creamy, thick secretion used to feed honey bee larvae and groom queens, has been discovered to have a powerful effect on genes and scientists now know how to mimic its effects, which will be give them an invaluable new technology to help make resistant bee strains.

©Ryszard Maleszka
The queen bee is indicated by a blue mark

Most of Britain's honeybees could be wiped out by disease within 10 years according to the British Beekeeping Association, referring to the varroa mite, which carries viruses and has devastated thousands of hives across the country when it reached Britain a decade ago.

Until now, producing queens under laboratory conditions has been virtually impossible and the Australian team that reports today's breakthrough says its findings "have the potential to become a major technological innovation that might alter commercial apiculture practices to great benefit."

All newly-born larvae in the bee colony receive initially a small amount of the jelly, but if a queen is needed, one selected hatchling will be fed an exclusive diet of royal jelly: in this way, a queen is made, not born, while the other young bees are condemned to a life of drudgery. Now a study published in Science solves the mystery of why eating royal jelly leads honeybee larvae to become queens instead of workers.

Although the jelly's specific ingredients are still largely a mystery, Dr Ryszard Maleszka of The Australian National University, Canberra, and colleagues now report that eating royal jelly seems to turn off a process called DNA methylation, a cellular mechanism used to govern the way genes are used in the body.

"Royal jelly seems to chemically modify the bee's genome by a process called DNA methylation and disrupts the expression of genes that turn young bees into workers," explains Dr Maleszka.

When one gene in particular, called Dnmt3, was turned off in the lab this change mimicked the effects of royal jelly, so that developing larvae resembled queens rather than workers. The findings suggest that turning off Dnmt3 induces a shift toward greater use of genes that lead to the development of queens.

In the context of honey bee diseases, Dr Maleszka says "since we now can produce queens in vitro (in the lab), our work has the potential to be used for producing 'super queens' with specific characteristics or disease resistant genotypes."

The researchers will continue to study how DNA methylation affects bees, as they suspect that the process could also be responsible for how the insects' brains develop, and may thus be connected to bee behaviour and even social organisation. The research suggests that environmental factors, in this case how larvae are fed, can have a major influence on how they develop.

The research team includes Joanna Maleszka, Dr Robert Kucharski and Dr Sylvain Foret and grew out of the honeybee genome project, which mapped the entire genetic blueprint of bees.

People collect and sell royal jelly as a dietary supplement, claiming various health benefits and it can also be found in various beauty products, though there is not much hard evidence of what it does.

"Royal jelly is still largely bio-chemically uncharacterised, but there is no doubt about its biological potency," says Dr Maleszka. "Unfortunately, I can't tell you what exactly this substance does to a human being, but I am not surprised that it could be beneficial."