Royal Jelly Seems to Defy Gravity in Queen Bee Study

Royal jelly isn't just for feeding queens.

In honeybee society, the monarch doesn’t break bread with the plebes. Even as a larva, the queen bee gets the exact same specially prepared dish delivered to her regularly by “nurse” bees, and in time this monotonous diet shapes her into a sexually mature female — the only one in the entire colony. Her dish of choice is a rich, sticky substance called royal jelly, which a new Current Biology study reveals has strange, “gravity-defying” chemical properties that are also crucial to her survival.

In the paper, published Thursday, scientists describe royal jelly’s strange chemical structure, which not only helps nourish the young queen but is critical to creating the special conditions under which new queen bees grow up to rule the hive. Queen bees, just like human monarchs, live in unusual chambers, far away from the crowd.

Since queens grow much bigger than workers or drones, they must develop in their own special honeycomb cells, located away from the main larva nursery. While the drone and worker cells open horizontally, the queen cells open downward — which should seem like a recipe for disaster. But the queens, somehow, stay put until they crawl out.

Queen bees are very selective about what they eat and where they live.

Flickr / Sam Droege

The secret to this gravity-defying behavior, write the scientists, is the pH balance of the royal jelly, in which the queen larvae are literally encased. In the new paper, the team led by first author and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg molecular ecologist Anja Buttstedt, Ph.D. show that the main protein in royal jelly combines with a special protein produced by nurse bees to yield a super-firm royal jelly mixture that can hold a queen bee upside-down.

The protein, known as MRJP1, combines with another protein called apisimin to turn the royal jelly into a polymer with long molecular strands that keep it firm — even against the force of gravity.

Part of this firmness is expressed in the pH differences between royal jelly with and without apisimin. Since apisimin is produced by nurse bee mandibles and contains fatty acids, it has a lower pH than MRJP1 does on its own. As you can see in the video above, when two royal jelly samples with different pH levels are flipped upside down like a queen’s larval cell, the more acidic one (with the lower pH) stays put while the less acidic one drips out.

Bees, in many ways, have developed technology far more advanced than ours. They dance to tell each other where the best food is located, they’re far more organized than we are at mass farming, and some of them even produce honey that gets you fucked up. Now we know they’ve figured out how to defy gravity, suggesting we’re way farther behind them than we ever thought.

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