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Studying and tasting nature

Does this honey taste differently?

It took the entire lifetime of 12 honey bees to make a single teaspoon of this honey.

Our honey bees, at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, have access to thousands of flowers from all around the world – some common, others more exotic.

That’s the unique blend you’re tasting.

We are members of the Maori research group at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge.

We are interested in the various ways honey bees communicate with each other.

Honey making is a delicate craft for honey bees. Every day, a few honey bees exit their hive and begin scouting the area for flowers. The colour pattern of the flowers attracts the honey bees, which collect nectar and pollen from the flowers. Once back into the hive, they place the nectar in the comb and tell the other honey bees where to find the flowers through body signalling, called the waggle dance.

Dancing, though, isn’t the only way that honey bees are able to communicate with each other. Honey bees produce a variety of chemical signals, called pheromones, that help them identify the Queen and the other nestmates. However, a typical honey bee will only live for about 30 days. How do they communicate with the next generation, how are they able to tell the ”history” of their hive and prepare and protect them from environmental threats, such as diseases?

Previous work in our group has discovered a new molecular way that honey bees can exchange information: RNA transmission between members of the hive.

Honey bees feed the larvae (the honey bee ”babies”) with worker or royal jelly – not honey! Within the jelly, the honey bees secrete RNA molecules that the larvae ingest. These RNAs are then distributed throughout their bodies, regulating bee genes and, potentially, protecting them from pathogens.

Why do honey bees exchange RNA with each other?

The discovery of this transmissible RNA pathway has sparked a lot of questions as to why and how honey bees exchange RNAs. Many of these RNA molecules originate from infectious viruses, bacteria, fungi, and plants. Therefore, we hypothesise that these RNAs are transmitted between individuals and across generations to protect from diseases that the hive encountered in the past. In a way, this RNA pathway could be viewed as analogous to our vaccination initiatives.

However, this is just one of the reasons why honey bees are exchanging RNAs. We are investigating other implications of this phenomenon as well as the molecular mechanisms at play. These can inform us about the nature of honey bees and provide insights into other organisms, such as humans.

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