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Am Nat. 1997 Jul;150 Suppl 1:S22-41.

Honey bee colonies are group-level adaptive units.

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Section of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA.


It is not widely recognized that natural selection has produced adaptive units at the level of groups. Multilevel selection theory shows that groups can evolve a high level of functional organization when between-group selection predominates over within-group selection. Strong empirical evidence that natural selection has produced adaptive units at the group level comes from studies of social insects in which we find colonies in certain species functioning as highly integrated units. The functional organization of a social insect colony is best understood for honey bees. Recent experimental analyses of honey bee colonies have revealed striking group-level adaptations that improve the foraging efficiency of colonies, including special systems of communication and feedback control. These findings are reviewed with the aim of showing that evolution has produced adaptively organized entities at the group level.


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