Honey bees have evolved a system in which fertilised eggs transit through the same developmental stages but can become either workers or queens. This difference is determined by their diet through development. Whereas workers live for weeks (normally 2-6 weeks), queens can live for years. Unfertilised eggs also develop through the same stages but result in a short-lived male caste (drones). Workers and drones are fed pollen throughout their late larval and adult life stages, while queens are fed exclusively on royal jelly and do not eat pollen. Pollen has a high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) while royal jelly has a negligible amount of PUFA. To investigate the role of dietary PUFA lipids and their oxidation in the longevity difference of honey bees, membrane fatty acid composition of the three castes was characterised at six different life-history stages (larva, pupa, emergent and different adult stages) through mass spectrometry. All castes were found to share a similar membrane phospholipid composition during early larval development. However, at pupation, drones and workers increased their level of PUFA, whilst queens increased their level of monounsaturated fatty acids. After emergence, worker bees further increased their level of PUFA by 5-fold across most phospholipid classes. In contrast, the membrane phospholipids of adult queens remained highly monounsaturated throughout their adult life. We postulate that this diet-induced increase in membrane PUFA results in more oxidative damage and is potentially responsible for the much shorter lifespan of worker bees compared with long-lived queens.
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