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Optimal colony fissioning in social insects: testing an inclusive fitness model with honey bees


In most species of social insects, when a queen departs from her parental nest to found a new colony, she leaves on her own. In some species, however, the departing queen leaves accompanied by a portion of the parental colony’s workers and there is a permanent fissioning of the worker force. Little is known about how the adult workers in colonies of fissioning species distribute themselves between the old and the new colonies. We examined this problem, building on Bulmer’s (J Theor Biol 100: 329–339, 1983) model for the optimal splitting of a colony’s adult workforce during colony reproduction. We first created an inclusive fitness model of optimal colony fissioning that applies to species in which fissioning gives rise to two autonomous colonies. The model predicts the optimal “swarm fraction”, which we define as the proportion of the adult workers in a fissioning colony that join the departing queen. We then tested the model by comparing the predicted and observed swarm fractions in honey bees. We found a close match between predicted (0.76–0.77) and observed (0.72 ± 0.04) swarm fractions. Evidently, worker honey bees distribute themselves between the old and new colonies in a way that jointly maximizes the inclusive fitness of each worker. We conclude by discussing additional ways to test the model.

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We thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments that improved this manuscript, and Sean Griffin for helping collect data to determine the winter survival probabilities of mother-queen and sister-queen colonies. Funding was provided to J.R. by a US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (Award number DGE 0707428), and by a State University of New York Graduate Underrepresented Minority Fellowship.

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Correspondence to T. D. Seeley.

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Rangel, J., Reeve, H.K. & Seeley, T.D. Optimal colony fissioning in social insects: testing an inclusive fitness model with honey bees. Insect. Soc. 60, 445–452 (2013).

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  • Apis mellifera
  • Dependent colony founding
  • Honey bees
  • Inclusive fitness theory
  • Swarming