Why do some queen bees eat their worker bee's eggs?

Dec 04, 2006
Why do some queen bees eat their worker bee's eggs?
A new study from the American Naturalist finds that honeybee workers’ sons are reared 100 times less in species with a queen mated to multiple males. Credit: Courtesy F. Ratnieks

Worker bees, wasps, and ants are often considered neuter. But in many species they are females with ovaries, who although unable to mate, can lay unfertilized eggs which turn into males if reared. For some species, such as bumble bees, this is the source of many of the males in the species. But in others, like the honeybee, workers "police" each other – killing eggs laid by workers or confronting egg-laying workers.

In 1964 the English biologist William Hamilton put forward his "relatedness hypothesis", a major landmark in kin selection theory. His hypothesis was that worker bees, wasps and ants do not reproduce because most workers are half sisters. Instead the workers favor the queen's male progeny, since she has mated with multiple males, ensuring variation in the species. According to this theory, a species where the mother queen mates with multiple males would have more worker policing. This theory is widespread and in animal behavior textbooks.

However, Hamilton's relatedness hypothesis was challenged in 2004 by researchers from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. They compared 50 species and found no evidence that multiple mating by the queen correlated with reduced rearing of workers' sons or greater worker reproductive policing. Were the textbooks wrong"

A new study appearing in the current issue of The American Naturalist strongly supports Hamilton's original theory. Tom Wenseleers and Francis Ratnieks (University of Sheffield) compared 90 species and found that workers' sons are reared 100 times less in species with a queen mated to multiple males. They also found worker policing by the queen, with the queen eating working-laid eggs, in all species with multiple-mated queens, but in only 20 percent with single-mated queens.

"It seems that the textbooks do not need rewriting," write the authors. "Kin selection theory is important when studying relatedness in social behavior. Social insects, with their great variation in kinship, have been a key test bed of the theory, and the theory has revolutionized our understanding of insect societies."

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: Drought causes birds to nest later, reducing nesting success

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

How mutualisms evolve in a world of selfish genes

Nov 11, 2014

Reproduction for a female fig wasp can be a nightmarish process. When she is ready to lay her eggs, she leaves the fig in which she was born and became pregnant and searches for another. After she finds it, ...

A battle for ant sperm

Oct 28, 2014

And you thought the sexual battles between people could get weird and fierce? Try ants. In a new study, biologists at the University of Vermont have discovered some queen ants that make sexual bondage into ...

Classic Lewis Carroll character inspires new ecological model

Jul 30, 2014

Inspired by the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, collaborators from the University of Illinois and National University of Singapore improved a 35-year-old ecology model to better understand how species ...

Recommended for you

Devising a way to count proteins as they group

9 hours ago

A new study from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and University of California Berkeley researchers reports on an innovative theoretical methodology to solve "the counting problem," which is key to understanding ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.