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Why not be queen?

March 17, 2014

Why not be queen?

Unlike honeybees or bumblebees, some female sweat bees may choose their rank in life: queen, solitary mother or worker in a queen’s nest

Unlike honeybees or bumblebees, some female sweat bees may choose their rank in life: queen, solitary mother or worker in a queen’s nest. If becoming a queen is as simple as flying off to start a nest in a stick, why don’t they all head straight to the top of the social and reproductive hierarchy?

Being facultatively social—as opposed to obligately social, like honeybees or ants—is especially rare in the tree of life and presents a unique opportunity to test how social behavior in insects evolved.

This question has long perplexed students of Megalopta genalis, a common sweat bee found in Panama. Beryl Jones, doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, hopes to get closer to the answer by building the bee’s first transcriptome: the set of genes expressed from the genome of this bee.

Jones captures bees in the field between 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. when they’re active. Then she carries out dominance interaction tests between females in a laboratory. She will also set up experimental nests on Barro Colorado Island and, with a collaborator, sample chemicals that may play a role in their interactions.

“Understanding how these complex phenotypes evolve is a critical goal in the study of evolution,” said Jones. “We can compare the mechanisms underlying reproductive division of labor in these bees to those of obligately social bees, and see whether the same mechanisms were involved across the different origins of sociality.”

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