The makings of a honeybee

Image courtesy of Muhammad Mahdi Karim, a Wikimedia Commons user

Honeybees give us our honey, royal jelly, propolis and beeswax and support the ecological structure of the environment by transferring pollen between plants. Despite their ecological and economic importance, very little is known about how honeybee workers develop from embryos to adults at the molecular level. In a paper in the journal Molecular & Cellular Proteomics, researchers tackled a proteomic analysis of honeybee worker embryos.
They found that while there is a central set of proteins involved in common biological pathways that drive development, “embryos at different developmental stages have their own specific proteome and pathway signatures,” says Jianke Li of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science in Beijing. “These findings provide a vital resource as a starting point for further functional analysis and genetic manipulation for both the honeybee embryos” and other eusocial insects, such as wasps, ants and termites.
The investigators studied worker bees, which are responsible for building the honeycomb, cleaning it, defending the colony, foraging for nectar and feeding the larvae. The worker bees, all sterile females, rise out of fertilized eggs in four stages. The first stage is the egg, during which the body plan of the insect is established. Li and colleagues used liquid chromatography combined with mass spectrometry as well as bioinformatics to see which proteins were present and how expression changed in embryos during their 72-hour development period.
The investigators found that the core proteome of all stages of embryonic development consisted of proteins involved in protein synthesis, metabolic energy generation and consumption, development, and molecular transport. But each embryonic stage had specific sets of proteins turn up on top of the core proteome.
Embryos younger than 24 hours had more proteins involved in nutrient storage and nucleic acid metabolism, which could correlate with the cell proliferation that happens at the early stage. Embryos during the 24-to-48-hour span expressed proteins responsible for cell-cycle control, transport, antioxidant activity and the cytoskeleton. These proteins may be present to support early formation of organs. The late-stage embryos, during the 48-to-72-hour time frame, produced proteins implicated in fatty acid metabolism and morphogenesis. These proteins could be responsible for the final formation of organs.
As you can see, the study gives researchers an idea of the processes happening at the different stages of embryonic development. Scientists now can use the data to see if particular processes lend themselves well to creating genetically modified honeybees, an active area of research.

Rajendrani MukhopadhyayRajendrani Mukhopadhyay ( is the senior science writer and blogger for ASBMB. Follow her on Twitter (, and read her ASBMB Today blog, Wild Types.