Age Polyethism in Worker Honey Bees

Department of Biology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva
Ethology (Impact Factor: 1.79). 04/2010; 71(3):252 - 255. DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.1986.tb00589.x
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    • "Another way that social insects achieve task allocation through relatively fixed roles is by assigning tasks to workers based on age, a process called age polyethism. This has been extensively described in honey bees (Seeley 1982; Kolmes 1986), as well as in some ants (Calahi et al. 1983; Julian and Fewell 2004; Camargo et al. 2007; Waddington and Hughes 2010). Although workers are not morphologically distinct, workers can experience physiological changes that occur as the individual grows older, and these trigger preferences for different task types, either directly or indirectly. "
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    ABSTRACT: A well-regulated division of labor has been one of the core adaptations leading to the success of the social insects. Honeybee division of labor has been classically viewed as a sequence of age-related changes in task performance. Kolmes questioned this view arguing that his studies did not support the existence of any age-related within-nest specialization. To resolve this controversy, Kolmes and Seeley conducted a joint study with mixed results. They found support for a cell cleaning caste, but diverged on whether their results supported distinct nursing and middle age castes. In this paper, I follow up on their work to resolve the question of caste number in within-nest honey bees. To determine whether nurses (typically aged 4–12days) and middle-aged bees (aged 12–20days) have distinct task repertoires, I conducted focal animal observations on a large number of workers in both age groups working within the same nests at the same time. The results support their being two castes of within-nest bees. Young bees specialized on brood care tasks, while middle-aged bees specialized on nectar processing and nest maintenance. Middle-aged bees were observed caring for brood in less than 1% of the observations. Moreover, both castes exhibited movement patterns that correspond to the traditional view that nurses stay within the broodnest, while middle-aged bees move around a great deal in search of work throughout the nest. A review of studies conducted since the debate of Seeley and Kolmes supports the reliability of these results. This work has relevance for proximate models of temporal polyethism, as it is often assumed by such models that there is only one within-nest caste in the honeybee.
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