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Mol Ecol. 2009 Apr;18(8):1791-800. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04154.x. Epub 2009 Mar 19.

Flexible social organization and high incidence of drifting in the sweat bee, Halictus scabiosae.

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Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, Biophore, UNIL-Sorge, Lausanne, Switzerland.


The very diverse social systems of sweat bees make them interesting models to study social evolution. Here we focus on the dispersal behaviour and social organization of Halictus scabiosae, a common yet poorly known species of Europe. By combining field observations and genetic data, we show that females have multiple reproductive strategies, which generates a large diversity in the social structure of nests. A detailed microsatellite analysis of 60 nests revealed that 55% of the nests contained the offspring of a single female, whereas the rest had more complex social structures, with three clear cases of multiple females reproducing in the same nest and frequent occurrence of unrelated individuals. Drifting among nests was surprisingly common, as 16% of the 122 nests in the overall sample and 44% of the nests with complex social structure contained females that had genotypes consistent with being full-sisters of females sampled in other nests of the population. Drifters originated from nests with an above-average productivity and were unrelated to their nestmates, suggesting that drifting might be a strategy to avoid competition among related females. The sex-specific comparison of genetic differentiation indicated that dispersal was male-biased, which would reinforce local resource competition among females. The pattern of genetic differentiation among populations was consistent with a dynamic process of patch colonization and extinction, as expected from the unstable, anthropogenic habitat of this species. Overall, our data show that H. scabiosae varies greatly in dispersal behaviour and social organization. The surprisingly high frequency of drifters echoes recent findings in wasps and bees, calling for further investigation of the adaptive basis of drifting in the social insects.

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