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STUDY: Honeybees remain altruistic in absence of monarchical queen bee

Queenless colonies lose division of labor, possibly revealing an ancestral state

Queenless colonies lose division of labor, possibly revealing an ancestral state

Dalia Ibrahim
Digital Reporter

Sunday, August 4, 2013, 8:33 PM -

Honeybees kick into high gear and form cooperative worker communes in the absence of a monarchical queen bee, according to a study done by the University of Illinois and and Macquarie University in Australia. 

Published in Current Biology, the study shows that bees exhibit altruistic behavior after the loss of the queen bee. They perform tasks for the benefit of the dying colony despite their own reproductive -- or as some would call 'selfish' -- urges. 

In your average colony, most of the worker bees are the offspring of the queen, whose needs come first and foremost. To put it frankly, her main focus is to reproduce. The worker bees are sterile and are collectively in charge of maintaining and protecting the colony. 

Kin selection theory -- which states that humans are willing to help out their relatives -- explains why queen-less bees put the colonies needs ahead of their own. Since the queen bee is the only one who can reproduce, most of the worker bees in the colony are sisters and aunts.

Egg-laying worker bees exhibit altruistic behavior, according to study

Egg-laying worker bees exhibit altruistic behavior, according to study

In queen-less colonies, some worker bees develop ovaries and lay eggs. However, they are only capable of producing male 'drone' bees, who are incapable of making honey, and instead flee the colony to mate with other queen bees. Thus, without a queen bee to produce female worker bees, a colony quickly dies out. This anomaly is not to be confused with the 'colony collapse disorder', which is when honeybees suddenly decease. 

However, when scientists from Macquarie University studied the behaviour of reproductive and sterile bees in queen-less colonies, they found that both were equally willing to engage in colony tasks. 

"Laying workers also had larger brood-food-producing and wax glands, showing metabolic investments in both colony maintenance and personal reproduction," wrote researchers in the study published on August 1. "In queen-less colonies the degree of individual specialization was much reduced," 

"Although selfish behaviour did increase," said Andrew Barron, a co-author of the study. "We saw that altruism did not decrease. The colonies effectively became worker communes -- collective societies where bees became generalists, maintaining and defending the colony together, to the end." 

To read the full summery of the study, click here

With files from

Scientists uncover why millions of bees are dying
Elmwood, Ontario apiarist devasted at sudden loss of more than 600 hives

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