New research finds that the semen of male honeybees contains a poison that makes queens temporarily lose their sight after sex. With habitat loss and changing climates threatening bee populations, a molecular understanding of honeybee mating habits could eventually be used to improve breeding programs and help insects that pollinate many of the foods we eat:
“The male bees want to ensure their genes are among those that get passed on by discouraging the queen from mating with additional males,” said Baer, senior author of the study that discovered these blinding findings published today in the journal eLife. “She can’t fly if she can’t see properly.”
To test whether the protein had this effect, Baer’s team presented inseminated queens with a flickering light, and measured her response to it via tiny electrodes in her brain. The vision and corresponding flight-impairing effects kick in within hours, but Baer notes that it is likely reversible in the long term because queens do tend to fly successfully later in life when they establish new colonies.
This team included Baer’s wife and co-author, Barbara Baer-Imhoof, a UC Riverside pollination specialist. As part of this project, Baer-Imhoof conducted experiments in which she installed tiny tags on queen bees’ backs read by scanners at the hive entrances.
“The tags were similar to those at the self-checkout counter in grocery stores,” Baer-Imhoof said. The experiment showed queens had difficulties finding their way back to their colonies if they had been inseminated.