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A critical number of workers in a honeybee colony triggers investment in reproduction

Abstract

Social insect colonies, like individual organisms, must decide as they develop how to allocate optimally their resources among survival, growth, and reproduction. Only when colonies reach a certain state do they switch from investing purely in survival and growth to investing also in reproduction. But how do worker bees within a colony detect that their colony has reached the state where it is adaptive to begin investing in reproduction? Previous work has shown that larger honeybee colonies invest more in reproduction (i.e., the production of drones and queens), however, the term ‘larger’ encompasses multiple colony parameters including number of adult workers, size of the nest, amount of brood, and size of the honey stores. These colony parameters were independently increased in this study to test which one(s) would increase a colony’s investment in reproduction via males. This was assayed by measuring the construction of drone comb, the special type of comb in which drones are reared. Only an increase in the number of workers stimulated construction of drone comb. Colonies with over 4,000 workers began building drone comb, independent of the other colony parameters. These results show that attaining a critical number of workers is the key parameter for honeybee colonies to start to shift resources towards reproduction. These findings are relevant to other social systems in which a group’s members must adjust their behavior as a function of the group’s size.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Kevin Loope, Julie Miller, and Carmen Kelleher, for their critical readings of the manuscript, and Jason Barry (CSCU), for his statistical advice. This paper is based on work supported by a US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (to MLS) and by a Hatch Grant (2010-11-237) from the Cornell University Agriculture Experiment Station (to TDS).

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Correspondence to Michael L. Smith.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Smith, M.L., Ostwald, M.M., Loftus, J.C. et al. A critical number of workers in a honeybee colony triggers investment in reproduction. Naturwissenschaften 101, 783–790 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-014-1215-x

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Keywords

  • Sociogenesis
  • Reproductive investment
  • Reproductive timing
  • Worker number
  • Honeybees
  • Drone comb