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J Exp Biol. 2009 Dec;212(Pt 23):3795-801. doi: 10.1242/jeb.035063.

Brood pheromone suppresses physiology of extreme longevity in honeybees (Apis mellifera).

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  • 1Department of Chemistry, Biotechnology and Food Science, University of Life Sciences, P.O. Box 5003, N-1432 Aas, Norway.


Honeybee (Apis mellifera) society is characterized by a helper caste of essentially sterile female bees called workers. Workers show striking changes in lifespan that correlate with changes in colony demography. When rearing sibling sisters (brood), workers survive for 3-6 weeks. When brood rearing declines, worker lifespan is 20 weeks or longer. Insects can survive unfavorable periods on endogenous stores of protein and lipid. The glyco-lipoprotein vitellogenin extends worker bee lifespan by functioning in free radical defense, immunity and behavioral control. Workers use vitellogenin in brood food synthesis, and the metabolic cost of brood rearing (nurse load) may consume vitellogenin stores and reduce worker longevity. Yet, in addition to consuming resources, brood secretes a primer pheromone that affects worker physiology and behavior. Odors and odor perception can influence invertebrate longevity but it is unknown whether brood pheromone modulates vitellogenin stores and survival. We address this question with a 2-factorial experiment where 12 colonies are exposed to combinations of absence vs presence of brood and brood pheromone. Over an age-course of 24 days, we monitor the amount of vitellogenin stored in workers' fat body (adipose tissue). Thereafter, we track colony survival for 200 days. We demonstrate that brood rearing reduces worker vitellogenin stores and colony long-term survival. Yet also, we establish that the effects can result solely from exposure to brood pheromone. These findings indicate that molecular systems of extreme lifespan regulation are integrated with the sensory system of honeybees to respond to variation in a primer pheromone secreted from larvae.

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