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Scientists have learned more about why royal jelly makes queen bees, and we peek at the tiny and terrifying mandibles of trap-jaw ants.
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Sources:

http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1006946
https://www.eurekalert.org/emb_releases/2017-08/p-hbw082417.php
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4977847/

http://dx.doi.org/10.1242/jeb.156513
https://www.eurekalert.org/emb_releases/2017-08/s-srh082317.php
https://youtu.be/Lq5-KE2C5mw

Images:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Weiselzellen_68a.jpg
https://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/emb/148793.php?from=368620
https://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/emb/148675.php?from=368501
https://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/emb/148674.php?from=368501
https://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/emb/148676.php?from=368501
This episode of Scishow is brought to you by Hover [♪ INTRO] Ah, to be a queen bee… you get to sit back, watch everybody else work, and chow down on royal jelly, a special goo full of rich protein, sweet sugar, and delicious fatty acids.

We’ve talked about it before on Sci Show: this nutrient-dense food is what turns a baby bee into a colony’s queen. Scientists have known for a while that it’s important for royal development, and have tried to figure out which ingredients make up the secret sauce. But it turns out that part of what makes royal jelly so remarkable is what isn’t inside it.

A team of Chinese researchers reported yesterday in the journal PLOS Genetics that there are plant RNAs in the slop that the rest of bees get that are mostly missing in royal jelly. These RNAs slow growth and prevent females from becoming fertile, essentially dooming them to be workers. It’s a curious case where plants, in a roundabout way, end up changing an animal’s entire social structure... Imagine if the potatoes we ate could somehow, like, pick our President!

It sounds ridiculous, but researchers have suspected that something in plants might be involved because royal jelly comes from glands in the heads of nurse bees. It’s an animal product. On the other hand, worker bees dine on a simpler mix of pollen and honey called beebread, which is more plant-based. Plants have short strips of RNA, or ribonucleic acid, called microRNAs, which can help regulate which genes get expressed inside them.

To be clear, we animals have microRNAs inside us too. And among other things, these short sequences can match up to bigger RNA molecules that are used to make proteins, and bind to them, triggering a degradation process. But the weird thing is: these tiny RNAs from plants can survive digestion and pass into animal cells through the food they eat. So some microRNAs from pollen can influence which proteins bees make. Which is weird.

When this team of scientists checked the two foods for plant RNAs, they found far more in beebread than in royal jelly. And when they fed larvae with lab-made food laced with the plant RNAs in beebread, the insects weighed less, were shorter, and had smaller ovaries. Basically, they looked more like worker bees.

To find out how the RNAs might be working, the scientists looked to see what the targets were, and found many related to honeybee development. Even in fruit flies, which are not social insects and don’t have a caste system, this lab-made diet made the insects lighter, shorter, and less fertile.

The biologists don’t think that plant microRNA in beebread is the only reason why just a few females get the crown. After all, there’s a lot happening with royal jelly. But part of the secret is that royal jelly doesn’t have these development-delaying molecules. It’s stripped of them when it’s being made, which means that food prep is just as important for bees as it is for you and me.

Now, bees are not the only insects to make headlines this week. Entomologists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the University of Illinois detailed an entirely new way that ants capture prey with their jaws. The work, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, focused on a group known as trap-jaw ants.

These ants all have jaws that operate like spring-loaded catapults to catch food, pinning victims between their mandibles in a kind of sideways alligator snap. But each one has a slightly different set-up, using different body parts as the latches, and springs, and triggers. In fact, trap-jaw ants aren’t even really that closely related to each other. They’re a motley crew, independently evolving similar mouthparts at least four times over the eons.

In this case, researchers investigated two members of the Myrmoteras genus, which have longer and spikier mandibles than other trap-jaw ants. They also open them much wider, a kind of frightening 280 degrees. The team knew almost nothing about these species going in, so they collected a couple of colonies from Malaysia, and brought them back to the lab to film them with high speed cameras. The group found that the ants can snap their jaws shut in about a half a millisecond, a tiny fraction of the blink of an eye, and with about 100 times more power than what the ants would be able to muster with muscles alone.

The scientists think the trick is a lobe at the back of the head that compresses and serves as a spring to power the jaws. CT scans of the ants revealed that inside the head, a big, slow muscle contracts to load the spring. Then, a smaller but extremely fast muscle lets everything rip. Together, these two muscles take up a little over a quarter of their head -- twice as much as the brain and eyes combined!

As impressive as these ants are, though, they’re much slower than other trap-jaw ants, maybe even 10 times slower. But they just need to be fast enough to munch on these quick, jumpy insect-like creatures called springtails. So really, there isn’t any need to be faster. It’s just another unique, incredible way insects catch their prey.

Despite centuries of research, there’s a ton we still don’t know about the millions of insect species out there. You could possibly learn a lot just by studying the weird bugs in your own backyard. And if you do, and you want to share your discoveries with the world, now’s the time to register weirdnewbugdiscoveries.com, or newbugnews.com, or any other domain you want for your side-project website.

Hover is a great way to buy and manage the domain names for all your ideas. There’s best in class customer service by phone, free WHOIS privacy, and Hover has over 400 domain extensions, like . COM, . NET, and . GURU. Securing the perfect domain means you can make cool custom email addresses, and Hover works with all email programs. Domain name your passion now and go to hover.com/scishow to save 10% off your first purchase. Make sure to use that link, so we get credit. [♪ OUTRO]