Genomic analysis of the interactions between social environment and social communication systems in honey bees (Apis mellifera)

Osnat Malka*, Elina L. Niño, Christina M. Grozinger, Abraham Hefetz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Social context is often a primary regulator of social behavior, but genes that affect or are affected by social context have rarely been investigated. In social insects, caste specific pheromones are key modulators of social behavior, e.g., in honey bees the queen mandibular gland (MG) pheromone mediates reproductive dominance, its absence prompting ovary activation and queen pheromone production in workers. Here, we investigate the effect of social environment on genome-wide expression patterns in the MG, to determine how social context modulates expression of genes that, in turn alter social environment. We used microarrays to examine the MGs of virgin and mated queens, and queenright (QR) and queenless (QL) workers with or without activated ovaries. Approximately 2554 transcripts were significantly differentially expressed among these groups, with caste and social context being the main regulators of gene expression patterns, while physiological state (ovary activation) only minimally affecting gene expression. Thus, social context strongly regulates expression of genes, which, in turn, shape social environment. Among these, 25 genes that are putatively involved in caste selective production of the fatty-acid derived MG pheromone were differentially expressed in queens and workers. These genes whose functions correspond with enzymatic or transport processes emphasize the occurrence of disparate pheromone biosynthetic pathways for queens and workers, adding another dimension regarding the regulation of these important pheromones. Gene ontology analysis also revealed genes of different functional categories whose expression was impacted by caste or by the social environment, suggesting that the MG has broader functions than pheromone biosynthesis.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)36-45
Number of pages10
JournalInsect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank J. Kamer and H. Efrat from the Tzrifin Apiary, and H. Kalev from The Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture Food and Environment the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for assistance in establishing the experimental hives. This research was supported by the grant no. 2007233 from the United States–Israel Binational Science Foundation to A. Hefetz and C. M. Grozinger.


  • Chemical communication
  • Genomics
  • Honey bee
  • Pheromone biosynthesis
  • Social behavior


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