, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 89-101

First online:

Reproduction, social behavior, and aging trajectories in honeybee workers

  • Luke DixonAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of North Carolina at GreensboroLife Science Department, Winston-Salem State University
  • , Ryan KusterAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of North Carolina at GreensboroBioinformatics Graduate Program, North Carolina State University
  • , Olav RueppellAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Email author 

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While a negative correlation between reproduction and life span is commonly observed, specialized reproductive individuals outlive their non-reproductive nestmates in all eusocial species, including the honeybee, Apis mellifera (L). The consequences of reproduction for individual life expectancy can be studied directly by comparing reproductive and non-reproductive workers. We quantified the life span consequences of reproduction in honeybee workers by removal of the queen to trigger worker reproduction. Furthermore, we observed the social behavior of large cohorts of workers under experimental and control conditions to test for associations with individual life expectancy. Worker life expectancy was moderately increased by queen removal. Queenless colonies contained a few long-lived workers, and oviposition behavior was associated with a strong reduction in mortality risk, indicating that a reproductive role confers a significant survival advantage. This finding is further substantiated by an association between brood care behavior and worker longevity that depends on the social environment. In contrast, other in-hive activities, such as fanning, trophallaxis, and allogrooming did not consistently affect worker life expectancy. The influence of foraging varied among replicates. An earlier age of transitioning from in-hive tasks to outside foraging was always associated with shorter life spans, in accordance with previous studies. In sum, our studies quantify how individual mortality is affected by particular social roles and colony environments and demonstrate interactions between the two. The exceptional, positive association between reproduction and longevity in honeybees extends to within-caste plasticity, which may be exploited for mechanistic studies.


Biodemography Reproduction Behavioral profiles Social evolution Division of Labor Mortality dynamics