Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 61, Issue 5, pp 783–792 | Cite as

Experimental analysis of worker division of labor in bumblebee nest thermoregulation (Bombus huntii, Hymenoptera: Apidae)

  • Kathryn E. Gardner
  • Robin L. Foster
  • Sean O’DonnellEmail author
Original Article


Bumblebee colonies experience daily and seasonal fluctuations in ambient temperature, but proper brood development requires a stable nest temperature. This study examined how adaptive colony responses to changing ambient temperature are achieved through the in-nest workers’ behavioral plasticity. We studied three Bombus huntii colonies in the laboratory. In the first experiment, we manipulated ambient temperature and recorded brood cell incubation and wing fanning by individually marked, known-age bees. The colonies maintained their nests closer to appropriate brood development temperatures (28 to 32°C) when exposed to a range of ambient temperatures from 10.3 to 38.6°C. Incubation activity was greater in cooler treatment conditions, whereas in the highest temperature treatment, some bees fanned and others moved off the brood. As the ambient temperature dropped, workers increased the duration of their incubating bouts, but, except at the highest temperature, the number of workers that incubated did not differ significantly among treatments. A subset of the bees incubated significantly more than their nest mates, some of which never incubated. Worker body size, but not age, was a good predictor of incubation rates, and smaller bees incubated at higher rates. In the second experiment, we removed the most actively incubating workers. Immediately after removals, the total colony incubation effort was lower than pre-removal levels, but incubation effort rebounded toward pre-removal levels after 24 h. The increased thermoregulatory demand after removals was met primarily by bees increasing their rates of incubation rather than by bees switching from a different task to incubation. We conclude that some B. huntii workers specialize on nest thermoregulation, and that changes in work rates are more important than task switching in meeting thermal challenges.


Homeostasis Polyethism Specialization Task performance Temperature 



Financial support was provided by NSF (IBN-9904885 and IBN-0347315 to S.O’D., and ROA-0119690 to R.L.F. and S.O’D.), the UEC-University of Puget Sound (to R.L.F); and Phi Sigma and the Murdock Charitable Trust (to K.E.G.). Special thanks to Tom Seeley for the assistance and advice on statistical analyses and thanks to Terry Mace, Tom Seeley, and two anonymous reviewers for the helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathryn E. Gardner
    • 1
  • Robin L. Foster
    • 2
  • Sean O’Donnell
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Entomology, Comstock HallCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Puget SoundTacomaUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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