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Born to be bee, fed to be worker? The caste system of a primitively eusocial insect

Nayuta Brand and Michel Chapuisat*

Author Affiliations

Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, Lausanne 1015, Switzerland

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Frontiers in Zoology 2012, 9:35  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-9-35

Published: 10 December 2012

Abstract

Introduction

Primitively eusocial halictid bees are excellent systems to study the origin of eusociality, because all individuals have retained the ancestral ability to breed independently. In the sweat bee Halictus scabiosae, foundresses overwinter, establish nests and rear a first brood by mass-provisioning each offspring with pollen and nectar. The mothers may thus manipulate the phenotype of their offspring by restricting their food provisions. The first brood females generally help their mother to rear a second brood of males and gynes that become foundresses. However, the first brood females may also reproduce in their maternal or in other nests, or possibly enter early diapause. Here, we examined if the behavioural specialization of the first and second brood females was associated with between-brood differences in body size, energetic reserves and pollen provisions.

Results

The patterns of variation in adult body size, weight, fat content and food provisioned to the first and second brood indicate that H. scabiosae has dimorphic females. The first-brood females were significantly smaller, lighter and had lower fat reserves than the second-brood females and foundresses. The first-brood females were also less variable in size and fat content, and developed on homogeneously smaller pollen provisions. Foundresses were larger than gynes of the previous year, suggesting that small females were less likely to survive the winter.

Conclusions

The marked size dimorphism between females produced in the first and second brood and the consistently smaller pollen provisions provided to the first brood suggest that the first brood females are channelled into a helper role during their pre-imaginal development. As a large body size is needed for successful hibernation, the mother may promote helping in her first brood offspring by restricting their food provisions. This pattern supports the hypothesis that parental manipulation may contribute to promote worker behaviour in primitively eusocial halictids.

Keywords:
Evolution of eusociality; Caste differentiation; Parental manipulation; Provisioning behaviour; Sweat bees; Halictids; Halictus scabiosae