Rebel honeybee workers lay eggs when their queen is away

The rebel workers are also more likely to infiltrate other colonies to have offspring

honeybees on a honeycomb

REBEL WITH A CAUSE  When a queen honeybee leaves her colony to start another elsewhere, rebel worker bees seize the chance to lay eggs, producing only males that live to mate. 

Karolina Kuszewska

Even honeybee queens have rebellious kids.

In a colony of European honeybees (Apis mellifera), only the queen lays eggs that hatch into female workers who maintain the hive and nurse the young. But at times a colony experiences periods of queenlessness, when the old queen has left and a new one isn’t ready. Some of the queen’s left-behind worker daughters seize this chance to lay their own eggs — and sometimes in an entirely new colony, finds a study published online October 31 in Ecology and Evolution.

The workers’ opportunistic egg-laying behavior was discovered in 2012 by researchers led by evolutionary biologist Karolina Kuszewska of Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. With no queen around to release chemicals that stunt workers’ ovarian growth, these “rebel workers” can lay eggs. Since rebel workers still do not mate as a queen bee would, they produce only sons that live only to mate. A departed queen’s replacement comes from a group of daughters born to fight one another until one survivor becomes the new queen.

Rebel workers are also more adventurous than normal worker bees, the new study shows. When the researchers tracked bees that were raised without queens, 21 to 39 percent of rebel workers flew to one of dozens of other colonies, compared with 3 to 8 percent of normal workers. No surprise: Those rebel workers were also more likely to infiltrate colonies that had no queen.

BEE SEEIN’ YA Rebel worker honeybees, which can lay eggs, are more likely to venture into foreign colonies than non-egg-laying normal worker bees. Researchers suggest this may be a way of shifting the burden of nursing their offspring to another colony. Karolina Kuszewska

The researchers suggest this might be a way for rebel workers to shift the burden of nursing their sons to another colony, a form of “reproductive parasitism.”

“When there is a queen present, the workers’ best strategy is to work for the colony. When queenless, it can be better to try and parasitise other colonies,” says Benjamin Oldroyd, an evolutionary biologist at University of Sydney who was not involved in the study.  

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