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Bees support plant life, dance to communicate, and are incredibly organised workers. They also have fascinating genes. Laura De Palma explains more.

I’ve always been a fan of bees; how could you not be? They support plant life, dance to communicate, and are incredibly organised workers. They are also very protective of their hive (check out what bee balling is to see what I mean).

A worker bee, queen bee and drone Credit: Science Museum/SSPL
A worker bee, queen bee and drone
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

However, in our Who Am I? gallery, we have some honey bees on display for a different reason: they have interesting genes.

Their success as a hive depends upon each bee performing his or her job. From birth, each little bee is destined to perform a role in order to keeps things running smoothly among the honeycombs.

Their job options are worker, drone, or queen. Male bees are always drones, while female bees will either become workers or the queen. One female bee is destined for royalty while all of her sisters have to work hard for a living.

In the Museum, you can see a queen bee side by side with a worker bee. Their appearance and fates are quite different, but their beginnings are the same. Workers and queens are born genetically identical, but external factors cause certain genes to switch on or off.

For bees these epigenetic processes are caused by what they eat.

All bee larvae are fed royal jelly, but while most are switched to pollen and nectar, one is chosen for an exclusive diet of royal jelly. Sticking to the royal stuff changes their role, but also their appearance and lifespan.

So could we eat our way into Buckingham Palace? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite the same way with humans. However, there is some proof that diet may cause epigenetic changes to our genes, and that these changes may be passed on to the next generation.

One study in The Gambia, which has been running for nearly 70 years, shows that babies conceived in the dry season are seven times more likely to die as young adults.

This is because in the wet months green vegetables are available, which if eaten during the first few days of development provide chemicals which bind to the babies DNA, permanently changing how some genes work. Scientists are still exploring why certain genes are expressed in humans. Perhaps in the future, we will find out we really are what we eat.

How much influence do you think your diet has had on who you are?

You can see our honey bees in the Who Am I? gallery, on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing in the Science Museum. Then why not head to Cravings on the ground floor, to find out how the food you eat affects your body, brain and eating-habits.

Laura De Palma is a member of the Learning Support Team