Mating is a complex process, which is frequently associated with behavioural and physiological changes. However, understanding of the genetic underpinnings of these changes is limited. Honey bees are both a model system in behavioural genomics, and the dominant managed pollinator of human crops; consequently understanding the mating process has both pure and applied value. We used next-generation transcriptomics to probe changes in gene expression in the brains of honey bee queens, as they transition from virgin to mated reproductive status. In addition, we used CO2-narcosis, which induces oviposition without mating, to isolate the process of reproductive maturation.
The mating process produced significant changes in the expression of vision, chemo-reception, metabolic, and immune-related genes. Differential expression of these genes maps clearly onto known behavioural and physiological changes that occur during the transition from being a virgin queen to a newly-mated queen. A subset of these changes in gene expression were also detected in CO2-treated queens, as predicted from previous physiological studies. In addition, we compared our results to previous studies that used microarray techniques across a range of experimental time-points. Changes in expression of immune- and vision-related genes were common to all studies, supporting an involvement of these groups of genes in the mating process.
Our study is an important step in understanding the molecular mechanisms regulating post-mating behavioural transitions in a natural system. The weak overlap in patterns of gene expression with previous studies demonstrates the high sensitivity of genome-wide approaches. Thus, while we build on previous microarray studies that explored post-mating changes in honey bees, the broader experimental design, use of RNA-sequencing, and focus on Australian honey bees, which remain free from the devastating parasite Varroa destructor, in the current study, provide unique insights into the biology of the mating process in honey bees.