Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 55, Issue 6, pp 513-523

First online:

Levels of selection in a social insect: a review of conflict and cooperation during honey bee (Apis mellifera) queen replacement

  • David R. TarpyAffiliated withDepartment of Entomology, North Carolina State University Email author 
  • , David C. GilleyAffiliated withCarl Hayden Bee Research Center
  • , Thomas D. SeeleyAffiliated withDepartment of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University

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The extended phenotype of a social insect colony enables selection to act at both the individual level (within-colony selection) and the colony level (between-colony selection). Whether a particular trait persists over time depends on the relative within- and between-colony selection pressures. Queen replacement in honey bee colonies exemplifies how selection may act at these different levels in opposing directions. Normally, a honey bee colony has only one queen, but a colony rears many new queens during the process of colony reproduction. The replacement of the mother queen has two distinct phases: queen rearing, where many queens develop and emerge from their cells, and queen elimination, where most queens die in a series of fatal duels. Which queens are reared to adulthood and which queens ultimately survive the elimination process depends on the strength and direction of selection at both the individual and colony levels. If within-colony selection is predominant, then conflict is expected to occur among nestmates over which queens are produced. If between-colony selection is predominant, then cooperation is expected among nestmates. We review the current evidence for conflict and cooperation during queen replacement in honey bees during both the queen rearing and queen elimination phases. In particular, we examine whether workers of different subfamilies exhibit conflict by acting nepotistically toward queens before and after they have emerged from their cells, and whether workers exhibit cooperation by collectively producing queens of high reproductive quality. We conclude that although workers may weakly compete through nepotism during queen rearing, workers largely cooperate to raise queens of similar reproductive potential so that any queen is suitable to inherit the nest. Thus it appears that potential conflict over queen replacement in honey bees has not translated into actual conflict, suggesting that between-colony selection predominates during these important events in a colony’s life cycle.


Polygyny Nepotism Colony reproduction Reproductive conflict Levels of selection