ASU researchers find link between social behavior, maternal traits in bees

One of the puzzling questions in the evolution of bees is how some species developed social behaviors. Arizona State University Life Sciences associate professor Gro Amdam thinks part of the answer can be traced back to bee reproductive traits.

A paper describing Amdam's experiments, "Complex social behavior derived from maternal reproductive traits," is the cover story of the current issue (Jan. 5, 2006) of Nature. Additional authors include M. Kim Fondrk and Robert Page from Arizona State University, and Angela Csondes from the University of California, Davis.

Honeybees live in highly complex communal societies that include divisions of labor among worker bees. Workers are female bees whose jobs include cleaning, maintaining and defending the hive, raising the young and foraging for nectar and pollen.

Other species of bees, like carpenter bees, do not engage in social behavior and instead lead solitary lives. This has prompted researchers to look into how social structures and divisions of labor have arisen in bees from their solitary ancestors. Amdam's research supports the idea that elements of the reproductive behavior of those ancestors evolved to form a basis for social living and divisions of labor.

This insight provides evidence for how complex social behavior evolves--evidence that could have value for studies of social behavior in other animals, possibly even humans.

"How social life emerged from a solitary lifestyle is a fundamental question," Amdam said. "One theory is that social behavior emerged through new evolutionary inventions. Another is that ancestral solitary phenotypes (characteristics of an organism) were the building blocks of social life, providing a foundation from which social forms could be assembled. For bees, our research supports the latter theory."

Amdam's research began as a doctoral dissertation at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She continued the work at University of Cal

Contact: Skip Derra
Arizona State University

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