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PLoS One. 2008;3(10):e3397. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003397. Epub 2008 Oct 14.

Sensory response system of social behavior tied to female reproductive traits.

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Department of Entomology, University of California Davis, Davis, California, United States of America.



Honey bees display a complex set of anatomical, physiological, and behavioral traits that correlate with the colony storage of surplus pollen (pollen hoarding). We hypothesize that the association of these traits is a result of pleiotropy in a gene signaling network that was co-opted by natural selection to function in worker division of labor and foraging specialization. By acting on the gene network, selection can change a suite of traits, including stimulus/response relationships that affect individual foraging behavior and alter the colony level trait of pollen hoarding. The 'pollen-hoarding syndrome' of honey bees is the best documented syndrome of insect social organization. It can be exemplified as a link between reproductive anatomy (ovary size), physiology (yolk protein level), and foraging behavior in honey bee strains selected for pollen hoarding, a colony level trait. The syndrome gave rise to the forager-Reproductive Ground Plan Hypothesis (RGPH), which proposes that the regulatory control of foraging onset and foraging preference toward nectar or pollen was derived from a reproductive signaling network. This view was recently challenged. To resolve the controversy, we tested the associations between reproductive anatomy, physiology, and stimulus/response relationships of behavior in wild-type honey bees.


Central to the stimulus/response relationships of honey bee foraging behavior and pollen hoarding is the behavioral trait of sensory sensitivity to sucrose (an important sugar in nectar). To test the linkage of reproductive traits and sensory response systems of social behavior, we measured sucrose responsiveness with the proboscis extension response (PER) assay and quantified ovary size and vitellogenin (yolk precursor) gene expression in 6-7-day-old bees by counting ovarioles (ovary filaments) and by using semiquantitative real time RT-PCR. We show that bees with larger ovaries (more ovarioles) are characterized by higher levels of vitellogenin mRNA expression and are more responsive to sucrose solutions, a trait that is central to division of labor and foraging specialization.


Our results establish that in wild-type honey bees, ovary size and vitellogenin mRNA level covary with the sucrose sensory response system, an important component of foraging behavior. This finding validates links between reproductive physiology and behavioral-trait associations of the pollen-hoarding syndrome of honey bees, and supports the forager-RGPH. Our data address a current evolutionary debate, and represent the first direct demonstration of the links between reproductive anatomy, physiology, and behavioral response systems that are central to the control of complex social behavior in insects.

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