Open Access Research article

Support for the reproductive ground plan hypothesis of social evolution and major QTL for ovary traits of Africanized worker honey bees (Apis mellifera L.)

Allie M Graham12, Michael D Munday1, Osman Kaftanoglu3, Robert E Page3, Gro V Amdam34 and Olav Rueppell1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1000 Spring Garden Street, 312 Eberhart Building, Greensboro, NC, 27403, USA

2 Current address: Duke University, Department of Biology, Box 90338 Durham, NC 27708, USA

3 School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, PO Box 874501, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501, USA

4 Department of Chemistry, Biotechnology and Food Science, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, 1432 Aas, Norway

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:95  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-95

Published: 13 April 2011



The reproductive ground plan hypothesis of social evolution suggests that reproductive controls of a solitary ancestor have been co-opted during social evolution, facilitating the division of labor among social insect workers. Despite substantial empirical support, the generality of this hypothesis is not universally accepted. Thus, we investigated the prediction of particular genes with pleiotropic effects on ovarian traits and social behavior in worker honey bees as a stringent test of the reproductive ground plan hypothesis. We complemented these tests with a comprehensive genome scan for additional quantitative trait loci (QTL) to gain a better understanding of the genetic architecture of the ovary size of honey bee workers, a morphological trait that is significant for understanding social insect caste evolution and general insect biology.


Back-crossing hybrid European x Africanized honey bee queens to the Africanized parent colony generated two study populations with extraordinarily large worker ovaries. Despite the transgressive ovary phenotypes, several previously mapped QTL for social foraging behavior demonstrated ovary size effects, confirming the prediction of pleiotropic genetic effects on reproductive traits and social behavior. One major QTL for ovary size was detected in each backcross, along with several smaller effects and two QTL for ovary asymmetry. One of the main ovary size QTL coincided with a major QTL for ovary activation, explaining 3/4 of the phenotypic variance, although no simple positive correlation between ovary size and activation was observed.


Our results provide strong support for the reproductive ground plan hypothesis of evolution in study populations that are independent of the genetic stocks that originally led to the formulation of this hypothesis. As predicted, worker ovary size is genetically linked to multiple correlated traits of the complex division of labor in worker honey bees, known as the pollen hoarding syndrome. The genetic architecture of worker ovary size presumably consists of a combination of trait-specific loci and general regulators that affect the whole behavioral syndrome and may even play a role in caste determination. Several promising candidate genes in the QTL intervals await further study to clarify their potential role in social insect evolution and the regulation of insect fertility in general.

Reproductive groundplan hypothesis; Social evolution; Complex trait locus mapping; Pollen hoarding syndrome; Worker reproduction; Asymmetry