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The Queen Bee Brainwash

Remember those painful bee stings of your childhood? Wouldn't it be nice to have a repellent to ward them off?

Well, we might not have a foolproof way to prevent stings, but did you know that the queen bee does? Within the hive, the queen bee releases pheromones from a gland near her jaw that effectively "brainwash" the worker bees. Scientists have found that one of these pheromones, homovanillyl alcohol, suppresses dopamine production in worker bee's brains. Without dopamine, the bees are less likely to learn from negative stimuli.

Why is that important?

Well, bees learn to react to negative stimuli with aggressive behavior, including using their stingers. Once this response develops, the impulse to sting becomes a reflex that could harm other bees or even the queen. The queen's pheromone causes the worker bees to retain only positive memories of their experiences in the hive, and ensures her own safety. The worker bees remain docile, and the hive itself is kept peaceful and safe.

You might wonder if the queen bee's pheromones encourage peaceful behavior, why do bees sting people?

It seems not all of the hive's bees are under the influence of the pheromones. In fact, it's usually only the youngest bees that stay with the queen. As the worker bees mature they are rarely if ever around the queen. They leave the hive to begin to search for nectar. At this point, they become immune to the queen's pheromone, and dopamine production in their brains returns to normal levels, enabling them to assess danger and react appropriately.

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