‘U’ researcher finds bee chemical

(Last updated: 08/28/09 6:11pm)
The secret’s out of the hive.

A long-researched and previously elusive chemical in bees that makes them stay around the hive instead of venturing into the outside world was recently discovered.

Zachary Huang, an associate professor in the Department of Entomology, published research 12 years ago that said some bees stay in the hive and others go out to collect nectar and defend the hive, but Huang never knew why.

His discovery of what’s called the primer pheromone in bees explains the behavior.

“For a long time, a lot of bees changed their division of labor and jobs with age, but we never knew what controls that,” Huang said. “People were interested in this dilemma, but didn’t know the mechanism – but we uncovered mechanism.”

Huang researched the primer pheromone with a team from Canada, France and other universities, and discovered that older forager bees influence younger nurse bees to stay in the hive until they mature enough to rough it in the real world.

The newly discovered primer pheromone triggers foragers to take care of their younger counterparts.

Bees have a five-week life span in the summer, but can live up to six months during the winter.

“This was curiosity driven,” Huang said. “Bees don’t have a government telling them, ‘Go be a forager bee.'”

Huang added that the pheromone could be used around schools or other congested areas to temporarily suppress bees from aggressive behavior.

He said finding applications for the new pheromone is a waiting game, but pointed to a queen bee pheromone recently uncovered as an example.

When it was first discovered, the queen bee pheromone didn’t have many applications, but a Canadian company later used it on apples and other crops to increase pollination rates, he said.

Anita Collins, a research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Huang’s discovery leads to a better understanding of the intricate honeybee society.

“They have such a complex society for an animal, and there are so many ways we can manipulate it because we know so much,” she said. “So this is how bees work without creating chaos.”

Collins said bees have temporary jobs throughout their life cycles – first they do jobs within the hive and then forage for nectar and pollen. This primer pheromone allows bees of the same age to be manipulated so all the jobs necessary in the bee society are accomplished.

“You can set up a colony of bees of only one age, and things happen so that foraging gets done and all the chores get accomplished, even though bees are the same age – and that’s not a usual situation, but we can do this by manipulation,” she said.

Huang’s discovery is another example of the leading research produced from the College of Agriculture, said Geoff Koch, communications manager for the Michigan Agriculture Experiment Station.

“It’s exciting to have one of our professors published in one of the leading journals, which raises awareness of the research at MSU,” Koch said.

Originally Published: 12/02/04 12:00am


Author: Zachary Huang

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