Background: The molecular mechanisms underlying the post-mating behavioral and physiological transitions undergone by females have not been explored in great detail. Honey bees represent an excellent model system in which to address these questions because they exhibit a range of "mating states," with two extremes (virgins and egg-laying, mated queens) that differ dramatically in their behavior, pheromone profiles, and physiology. We used an incompletely-mated mating-state to understand the molecular processes that underlie the transition from a virgin to a mated, egg-laying queen. We used same-aged virgins, queens that mated once but did not initiate egg-laying, and queens that mated once and initiated egg-laying.
Results: Differences in the behavior and physiology among groups correlated with the underlying variance observed in the top 50 predictive genes in the brains and the ovaries. These changes were correlated with either a behaviorally-associated pattern or a physiologically-associated pattern. Overall, these results suggest that the brains and the ovaries of queens are uncoupled or follow different timescales; the initiation of mating triggers immediate changes in the ovaries, while changes in the brain may require additional stimuli or take a longer time to complete. Comparison of our results to previous studies of post-mating changes in Drosophila melanogaster identified common biological processes affected by mating, including stress response and alternative-splicing pathways. Comparison with microarray data sets related to worker behavior revealed no obvious correlation between genes regulated by mating and genes regulated by behavior/physiology in workers.
Conclusion: Studying the underlying molecular mechanisms of post-mating changes in honey bee queens will not only give us insight into how molecular mechanisms regulate physiological and behavioral changes, but they may also lead to important insights into the evolution of social behavior. Post-mating changes in gene regulation in the brains and ovaries of honey bee queens appear to be triggered by different stimuli and may occur on different timescales, potentially allowing changes in the brains and the ovaries to be uncoupled.