Insectes Sociaux

, Volume 57, Issue 2, pp 193–197 | Cite as

Small worker bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) are hardier against starvation than their larger sisters

  • M. J. Couvillon
  • A. Dornhaus
Research Article


In bumble bees (Bombus spp.), where workers within the same colony exhibit up to a tenfold difference in mass, labor is divided by body size. Current adaptive explanations for this important life history feature are unsatisfactory. Within the colony, what is the function of the smaller workers? Here, we report on the differential robustness to starvation of small and large worker bumble bees (Bombus impatiens); when nectar is scarce, small workers remain alive significantly longer than larger workers. The presence of small workers, and size variation in general, might act as insurance against times of nectar shortage. These data may provide a novel, adaptive explanation, independent of division of labor, for size polymorphism within the worker caste.


Polymorphism Robustness Social insects Bumble bees Bombus impatiens 



We thank Jennifer Bonds for her help with data collection and Duncan Jackson and Dan Papaj for comments on the manuscript. This work was funded by a NIH PERT fellowship to MJC through the Center for Insect Science.


  1. Alford D.V. 1975. Bumblebees, Davis-Poynter. London.Google Scholar
  2. Beshers S.N. and Fewell J.H. 2001. Models of division of labor in social insects. Annu. Rev. Entomol. 46: 413–440CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Bonabeau E., Dorigo M. and Theraulaz G. 2000. Inspiration for optimization from social insect behaviour. Nature 406: 39–42CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Chapman R.E. and Bourke A.F.G. 2001. The influence of sociality on the conservation biology of social insects. Ecol. Lett. 4: 650–662CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chown S.L. and Gaston K.J. 1999. Exploring links between physiology and ecology at macro-scales: the role of respiratory metabolism in insects. Biol. Rev. 74: 87–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cnaani J. and Hefetz A. 1994. The effect of workers size frequency-distribution on colony development in Bombus terrestris. Insect. Soc. 41: 301–307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cnaani J., Schmid-Hempel R. and Schmidt J.O. 2002. Colony development, larval development and worker reproduction in Bombus impatiens Cresson. Insect. Soc. 49: 164–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Couvillon M.J. and Dornhaus A. 2009. Location, location, location: larvae position inside the nest is correlated with adult body size in worker bumble bees (Bombus impatiens). Proc. R. Soc. B 276: 2411–2418CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cumber R.A. 1949. The biology of humble-bees, with special reference to the production of the worker caste. Trans. R. Ent. Soc. Lond. 100: 1–45Google Scholar
  10. Dornhaus A. 2008. Specialization does not predict individual efficiency in an ant. PLoS 6:e285Google Scholar
  11. Foster R.L., Brunskill A., Verdirame D. and O’Donnell S. 2004. Reproductive physiology, dominance interactions, and division of labour among bumble bee workers. Physiol. Entomol. 29: 327–334CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Free J.B. and Butler C.G. 1959. Bumblebees, Collins. London.Google Scholar
  13. Gardner K., Foster R. and O’Donnell S. 2007. Experimental analysis of worker division of labor in bumblebee nest thermoregulation (Bombus huntii, Hymenoptera: Apidae). Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 61: 783–792CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gilchrist G.W., Huey R.B. and Serra L. 2001. Rapid evolution of wing size clines in Drosophila subobscura. Genetica 112: 273–286CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Goulson D., Peat J., Stout J.C., Tucker J., Darvill B., Derwent L.C. and Hughes W.O.H. 2002. Can alloethism in workers of the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, be explained in terms of foraging efficiency? Anim. Behav. 64: 123–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Heinze J., Foitzik S., Fischer B., Wanke T. and Kipyatkov V.E. 2003. The significance of latitudinal variation in body size in a holarctic ant, Leptothorax acervorum. Ecography 26: 349–355CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hines H.M. 2008. Historical biogeography, divergence times, and diversification patterns of bumble bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombus). Syst. Biol. 57: 58–75CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Hoffmann A.A. and Harshman L.G. 1999. Desiccation and starvation resistance in Drosophila: patterns of variation at the species, population and intrapopulation levels. Heredity 83: 637–643CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Hölldobler B. and Wilson E.O. 1990. The Ants, Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 732 ppGoogle Scholar
  20. Jandt J. and Dornhaus A. 2009. Spatial organization and division of labor in the bumble bee, Bombus impatiens. Anim. Behav. 77: 641–651CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Markiewicz D. and O’Donnell S. 2001. Social dominance, task performance and nutrition: implications for reproduction in eusocial wasps. J. Comp. Physiol. A 187: 327–333CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Michener C.D. 2000. The Bees of the World, Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.Google Scholar
  23. O’Donnell S. and Foster R.L. 2001. Thresholds of response in nest thermoregulation by worker bumble bees, Bombus bifarius nearcticus (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Ethology 107: 387–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Oster G.F. and Wilson E.O. 1978. Caste and Ecology in the Social Insects, Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 352 ppGoogle Scholar
  25. Peat J., Tucker J. and Goulson D. 2005. Does intraspecific size variation in bumblebees allow colonies to efficiently exploit different flowers? Ecol. Entomol. 30: 176–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Plowright R.C. and Jay S.C. 1968. Caste differentiation in bumblebees (Bombus Latr.: Hym.) .1. Determination of female size. Insect. Soc. 15: 171–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Porter S.D. and Jorgensen C.D. 1981. Foragers of the harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex owyheei: a disposable caste? Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 9: 247–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Robinson G.E. 1992. Regulation of division-of-labor in insect societies. Annu. Rev. Entomol. 37: 637–665CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Sokal R.R. and Rohlf F.J. 1995. Biometry, W.H. Freeman and Company. New York. 850 ppGoogle Scholar
  30. Spaethe J. and Weidenmuller A. 2002. Size variation and foraging rate in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). Insect. Soc. 49: 142–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Stillwell R.A.C., Morse G.A.E. and Fox C.A. 2007. Geographic variation in body size and sexual size dimorphism of a seed-feeding beetle. Amer. Nat. 170: 358–369CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Telonis-Scott M., Guthridge K.M. and Hoffmann A.A. 2006. A new set of laboratory-selected Drosophila melanogaster lines for the analysis of desiccation resistance: response to selection, physiology and correlated responses. J. Exp. Biol. 209: 1837–1847CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Toth A.L. and Robinson G.E. 2005. Worker nutrition and division of labour in honeybees. Anim. Behav. 69: 427–435CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Tschinkel W.R. 1998. Sociometry and sociogenesis of colonies of the harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex badius: worker characteristics in relation to colony size and season. Insect. Soc. 45: 385–410CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Wilson E.O. 1985. The sociogenesis of insect colonies. Science 228: 1489–1495CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Wilson E.O. 1987. Causes of ecological success: the case of the ants. J. Anim. Ecol. 56: 1–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Yerushalmi S., Bodenhaimer S. and Bloch G. 2006. Developmentally determined attenuation in circadian rhythms links chronobiology to social organization in bees. J. Exp. Biol. 209: 1044–1051CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel/Switzerland 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, Department of Biology and Environmental ScienceUniversity of SussexFalmerUK

Personalised recommendations