Genetic studies suggest links between nutrition, environment and the insects' development and may offer clues to the origin of Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious cause of mass bee deaths globally, a release from the University of Sheffield in Britain said.
Genetics play an important role in honeybees development, researchers found.
"When the queen bee lays her eggs, worker bees can determine whether the resulting larvae are to become an adult worker bee or an adult queen bee," researcher Paul Hurd from Queen Mary, University of London, said.
"The type of food the larvae is fed dictates the developmental outcome -- larvae destined to become workers are fed a pollen and nectar diet, and those destined to become queens are fed royal jelly.
"This difference in feeding is maintained over the entire lifetime of the worker or queen bee."
That's the result of a "histone code," researchers said, a process of genetic changes in proteins called histones within cells' nuclei considered "epigenetic" changes, as opposed to "genetics" changes permanently locked into DNA.
"The development of different bees from the same DNA in the larvae is one of the clearest examples of epigenetics in action -- mechanisms that go beyond the basic DNA sequence," co-author Mark Dickman from the University of Sheffield said.
The findings could help understand threats currently facing honeybees, researchers said.
"We really need to begin looking beyond classical genetics to understand many of the current problems honeybees face including colony collapse disorder," Professor Maleszka of the Australian National University said. "There are rarely single genes that cause a given disease; it's more often interactions between a number of genes that's heavily influenced by environmental factors.