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Open Access Research article

Social complexity in bees is not sufficient to explain lack of reversions to solitary living over long time scales

Luke B Chenoweth1*, Simon M Tierney2, Jaclyn A Smith1, Steven JB Cooper3 and Michael P Schwarz1

Author Affiliations

1 Biological Sciences, Flinders University GPO BOX 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001, Australia

2 Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado Postal 0843-03092, Panama, Republica de Panama

3 Evolutionary Biology Unit, South Australian Museum, North Terrace, Adelaide, S.A. 5001, Australia

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:246  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-246

Published: 21 December 2007

Abstract

Background

The major lineages of eusocial insects, the ants, termites, stingless bees, honeybees and vespid wasps, all have ancient origins (≥ 65 mya) with no reversions to solitary behaviour. This has prompted the notion of a 'point of no return' whereby the evolutionary elaboration and integration of behavioural, genetic and morphological traits over a very long period of time leads to a situation where reversion to solitary living is no longer an evolutionary option.

Results

We show that in another group of social insects, the allodapine bees, there was a single origin of sociality > 40 mya. We also provide data on the biology of a key allodapine species, Halterapis nigrinervis, showing that it is truly social. H. nigrinervis was thought to be the only allodapine that was not social, and our findings therefore indicate that there have been no losses of sociality among extant allodapine clades. Allodapine colony sizes rarely exceed 10 females per nest and all females in virtually all species are capable of nesting and reproducing independently, so these bees clearly do not fit the 'point of no return' concept.

Conclusion

We argue that allodapine sociality has been maintained by ecological constraints and the benefits of alloparental care, as opposed to behavioural, genetic or morphological constraints to independent living. Allodapine brood are highly vulnerable to predation because they are progressively reared in an open nest (not in sealed brood cells), which provides potentially large benefits for alloparental care and incentives for reproductives to tolerate potential alloparents. We argue that similar vulnerabilities may also help explain the lack of reversions to solitary living in other taxa with ancient social origins.