How honeybees’ royal jelly might be baby glue, too

A last-minute pH shift turns goo sticky and keeps queen larvae from falling out of their cells


EATING IN BED  For larval honeybee queens, stick-to-the-ceiling food is great for life at the top of oversized, wrinkly cells (shown bulging from the bottom of this honeybee cell array). These cells remain open at the bottom until the queen larvae are ready to pupate.


Honeybee royal jelly is food meant to be eaten on the ceiling. And it might also be glue that keeps a royal baby in an upside-down cradle.

These bees raise their queens in cells that can stay open at the bottom for days. A big blob of royal jelly, abundantly resupplied by worker bees, surrounds the larva at the ceiling. Before the food is deposited in the cell, it receives a last-minute jolt of acidity that triggers its proteins to thicken into goo, says Anja Buttstedt, a protein biochemist at Technische Universität Dresden in Germany. Basic larva-gripping tests suggest the jelly’s protein chemistry helps keep future queens from dropping out of their cells, Buttstedt and colleagues propose March 15 in Current Biology.

Suspecting the stickiness of royal jelly might serve some function, researchers tweaked its acidity. They then filled small cups with royal jelly with different pH levels and gently turned the cups upside down. At a natural royal jelly acidity of about pH 4.0, all 10 larvae dangled from their gooey blobs upside down overnight. But in jelly boosted to pH 4.8 (and thinned in the process), four of the 10 larvae dropped from the cups. At pH 5.9, all of them dropped.

Honeybees build several forms of royally oversized cells for raising a queen. Those for queens who will swarm with their workers to a new home hang from the rim of an array of regular cells. A hole stays open at the bottom of the cell until the larva nears pupation from her fat grub shape into a queen with wings. That hole at the bottom is big enough for a royal larva to fall through, confirms insect physiologist Steven Cook at the honeybee research lab in Beltsville, Md., run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Buttstedt and colleagues propose that the stickiness of royal jelly may be what keeps the larva in place. The team worked out how the jelly’s proteins change as it is made, and how those changes affect its consistency.

Royal jelly is secreted as a brew of proteins from the glands above a worker bee’s brain. At that point, it has a neutral pH, around 7, like water’s. The worker bee then adds fatty acids from glands in her mouthparts, which take the pH to around 4.

“It has a quite sour smell,” Buttstedt says. As for taste? “Really weird.” A steady diet of this jelly is what turns a larvae into a queen instead of a worker.

At pH 4, the jelly’s most common protein, MRJP1, goes complicated. When the protein leaves the glands above the brain, it’s clustered in groups of four along with smaller proteins called apisimins, the team found. When the acidity shifts, the MRJP1 foursomes and the apisimins hook together in slender fibers and get gluey.

“The most puzzling question,” Buttstedt says, is “why build upside-down queen cells in the first place?”

ROYAL MESS  Queen bee larvae dine on something called royal jelly inside the cells where they grow. While studying the thickness of royal jelly, scientists tested several samples with different pH levels. Royal jelly with a natural acidity of pH 4.0 was sticky enough to hold a larva fast in a tiny cuplike cell, even when hanging upside down. But the royal jelly adjusted to a pH of 5.8 was too runny, and the larva fell from the cup.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

More Stories from Science News on Animals